Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

*. Right from the beginning (I’m looking at the original English-language newspaper advertisement) Tetsuo: The Iron Man was compared to the work of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. I still see it discussed this way, almost as a critical default setting. In fact, reading over various reviews and commentaries online I don’t think I found more than a couple that didn’t mention at least one of the Daves.
*. I don’t get it. I don’t see any visual relationship between this film and the work of Cronenberg or Lynch. None at all. You can say it’s like Eraserhead because it’s in black-and-white, or like Cronenberg because it deals with body horror (a rather wide-ranging term) but that’s it. Writer-director Shin’ya Tsukamoto has called himself a disciple of Cronenberg and there are thematic connections to be made. The fetishization of technology is of a piece with what we saw in Videodrome and would see in Crash. But those are common enough themes and, as I’ve said, these films don’t look the same or move in the same way.
*. Just sticking with movement, there’s nothing like the crazy editing we see here in the work of the Daves. If anything their films are characterized by a languid sense of pacing. This movie is manic from start to finish. Pacing is a big part of any film, and any director’s sense of style, and here Tsukamoto is worlds apart from Lynch and Cronenberg.
*. I don’t even think the thematic connection to Cronenberg can be pushed very far. This is because I’m unclear what themes are being explored in Tetsuo. The most common interpretation that I’ve seen has it that it’s meant as a commentary on the regimentation of Japanese society, but the metal man (the meaning of “tetsuo”) doesn’t take on the bureaucracy or corporate capitalism. He’s just a monster. And anyway, doesn’t the fact that the salaryman becomes crazier and more rebellious as he becomes more mechanical undercut such a message? Isn’t this movie about embracing, however perversely or violently, our transformation into a form of technology?

*. Instead of trying to interpret it, I see it mainly as just another bit of Japanese zaniness. It’s off the wall and all over the place with scenes of sex and violence so extreme they don’t even register because they’re so silly. It has some shock value and nicely evokes the industrial grotesque but it doesn’t carry a message any deeper than a Toho monster movie, or an episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which are the analogs I was most reminded of by the slugfest at the end. Is the final hybrid creature a giant cock, as is usually suggested? This is something else I don’t see. It looks more Dalek than dick to me. The giant drill strikes me as more naturalistic, mainly in the way it seems to operate with a mind of its own.
*. The first time I saw Tetsuo was in a version without subtitles, which is how I think it was initially played on the festival circuit. I don’t see how it makes much difference. Most people who watch it today head online for help in understanding the plot. I’ve had recourse to the same aids, and while what I’ve learned is sometimes interesting I don’t know how far to trust these sources. The synopses that I’ve read seem to explain more than we can safely assume from what’s on screen. And so there are parts of the film where I’m still not sure what’s going on.
*. This isn’t to belittle Tetsuo. I’d rather watch this again than Crash any day. It took Tsukamoto a grueling 18 months to make, and you can really feel that odd juxtaposition between the care he took with it and its frantic, hyper-kinetic qualities, between its art-house and grindhouse origins. I don’t find it as weird as a lot of other people do. To me it looks like a lot of experimental or avant-garde film from 70 years ago, only with a punkier soundtrack and more blood. At just over an hour it becomes repetitive, but it’s still a movie to enjoy and even delight in, and one that introduces a new sensibility.

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