A man in a scrap yard cuts a gash in his leg and then shoves in a metal rod. Later he finds maggots in the wound, runs down the street screaming and is hit by a car. And we’re off.
Released in 1989, actor/director Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo is an utterly inspired and darkly hilarious black and white romp. According to Wikipedia, there is a story but it is only sketchily revealed as the film progresses, and even if you’re glad of a synopsis, you’ll be perhaps healthily distrustful. Stuff happens certainly, but the whys and the wherefores are almost beside the point. The point is the energy with which the film is shot through and the inventiveness and downright oddness of Tsukamoto’s vision.
The man with the rod in his leg (played by Tsukamoto himself) pursues the couple who were driving the car and exacts revenge upon them by turning the bespectacled man (Tomorowo Taguchi) gradually into metal. It starts with his electric razor hitting something in his cheek which tings, then there’s a demure-looking woman at the railway station who turns into a metal-infected demon. From the very beginning, we are in a universe of extreme physical craziness. Parts of the film feel like elaborate dance numbers, a danse macabre of metal, flesh, wires, sexual organs, memories, television screens, guilt, rust and blood that sprays as black as oil. The acting is exuberantly physical and pitched operatically high, wavering between terror, agony, wheezing anxiety and all-out panic. The dialogue all the while blankly denies this. As Taguchi undergoes a metallic rupturing in the next room, he reassures his wife: ‘Nothing’s the matter.’ There is a dream sequence in which the bespectacled Taguchi is anally raped by his wife with a snake like probe. But to say ‘there is a dream sequence’ is to misleadingly suggest that there can be such a distinction between dream and reality. In Tetsuo, reality is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.
Often compared to David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the early work of David Cronenberg, Tetsuo is actually in a league of its own. In comparison, Lynch’s film is a stately, brooding work of quiet desperation, and Cronenberg, although thematically radical, is stylistically conservative, often filming with TV movie reserve. Tsukamoto directs like one of his possessed characters. Everything is thrown at the screen from stop-motion animation to camera trickery: the camera races down streets and through alleys and the percussive soundtrack hammers along with growing intensity. Although the comment that a film resembles a music video is often meant dismissively, here the comparison is perfectly apt.
The pace of the film ends up having a logic of its own as it rushes headlong towards a collision between the now almost totally transformed victim and the demonic joyous fetishist. This is what the narrative really is: a process of initially vicious but energetic mutation. There is sex and there is the idea that we are perhaps just machines anyway. The drill penis seems like a literal realisation of our own violent idiom, talk of screwing, nailing, banging, etc., which reduces (or promotes) sex to a kind of carpentry. We are machines that use machines. From the car to the electric razor, we are already intimate with machinery and metal. The naked lunch of forks scraping against teeth reveals our daily internalising of metal. When the main character is remembering something (usually having sex with his wife), we see it through the stroboscopic screen of a portable television set.
And yet, the horror is, in this metaphoric resemblance, becoming identical to a machine. While we see ourselves becoming increasingly reliant on technology and ever more intimate with it (a blue tooth you stick in your ear, a touch pad), Tsukamoto’s maniacal insistence takes the relationship between man and machine to a literal, if bonkers, conclusion. The Godzilla-like monster that threatens to destroy Tokyo and the world at the end is merrily apocalyptic. The film ends with the cheeky letters stamping out ‘GAME OVER’.
A far more conventional film than its predecessor, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer was made in 1992 with a significantly bigger budget and yet is still mad enough for many. This time round, Tomorowo Taguchi plays Taniguchi Tomoo, a sort of Japanese Mr Bean, similar to the role he played in the first film, but now with a wife, Minori (Keinosuke Tomioka) and child. Shin’ya Tsukamoto once more plays the catalyst for the story, Yatsu, the leader of a violent skinhead cyborg army who kidnap Tomoo’s child and by enraging him cause him to start changing into a terrifying metal weapon. Whereas Tsukamoto’s first film was a low-budget anarchic helter-skelter of accelerated mutation, Testuo II is sporadically and superficially punk. The Iron Man disdained to have a story, but Body Hammer has a familiar-to-the-point-of-bog-standard thriller plot of the weak-willed family man being pushed to the edge by ruthless violence. If they do an English language remake, Liam Neeson can play Tomoo.
Of course, this being Tsukamoto, the plot pushes itself over into parodic lunacy. Tomoo has a Rocky-like training montage in which his feeble attempts become metallically assisted. There are stock figures: a mad scientist who wears a white coat and talks about his brilliant brains, just before said brains get visibly blown out, and villains who grin, jibber and sneer. There is a car chase, during which Tomoo pursues the villains on a push bike, mutating as he goes until he is able to ram the car with his bike. It is witty and absurd, but the wit and the absurdity seem to be at the service of a plot rather than being the point itself. The villains dress like punks – one of them obviously gave Laurence Fishburne costume tips for the Matrix sequels – but the film’s radical vision seems to have become watered down, or exhausted itself.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Iron Man was really like watching a ménage á trois between metal, rust and sex. This wasn’t a story about mutation but mutation as story. World destruction arrived at the end, almost as an afterthought, something glibly funny to do with all this power. The cause of the mutation wasn’t explicitly given – the man didn’t get bitten by a radioactive spider or anything like that – and as brilliant as Wikipedia is, the plot is a reading into the film rather than a description of what we actually see. The first film has no characters as such. There is Man and Woman and Metal Fetishist. The limit of all this was that the film didn’t have much to say. It was a disturbing nightmare that left you confused – was supposed to leave you confused.
In Body Hammer, the family has arrived, and with the family comes narrative proper. The beginning, middle and end of narrative are the child, the parents and the holy ghost. A poisonous family romance (we will eventually learn) is behind the whole fracas, a wicked father, fraternal estrangement and oedipal passions. It is Tomoo’s old family that has effectively destroyed his new one. Body Hammer has explanations, exposition for crying out loud, and as such feels like the smaller film, despite having a more ambitious agenda. The concluding apocalyptic fusion is effectively a repetition of the ending of the first film and feels like an admission that it has nowhere to go.
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