Cinophile: Tetsuo – The Iron Man

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[column size=one_half position=first ]How the hell do you explain this movie to people? If we rely on genre, it’s an extreme arthouse cyberpunk fetish music surrealist horror that might be mistaken for a crazy music video with an hour-long runtime. That makes no sense, but could be awesome, right? Welcome to Tetsuo: The Iron Man.

This strange Japanese movie isn’t too big on exposition. You meet a man, a white-collar type, who discovers a tiny piece of metal on his face. Later he is assaulted by a crazy woman under the influence of some type of technology and that night he has a terrifying nightmare in which his girlfriend is a machine monster intent on raping him. That of course all falls to the wayside when he realises he is actually turning into a machine.

We’re not talking a Transformer: but more like H.R. Giger having a go at the early costumes of Star Trek’s Borg. In fact, many have noted that Giger’s bio-mechanical paintings must have inspired Tetsuo and at first glance that seems obvious.

But compile a list and suddenly a lot of strange stuff qualifies. Tetsuo is most often held next to Eraserhead – both share similar themes, employ gritty black-and-white footage and crunch continuously on a hard industrial soundtrack. Yet it also makes you think of Videodrome, Franz Kafka’s stories, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and a lot of other stuff. At the same time you can see how it has influenced everything from the shlock-exploitation film Machine Girl to Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature film Pi to industrial trailblazers Nine Inch Nails.

This film is crazy, but not in that “throw bodyparts at the audience” way. It is too nuanced to be a simple piece of exploitation. And yet it is totally an extreme exploitation movie. Tetsuo walks a line only it can see: what appears on screen is not necessarily offensive (though this film is not for the easily offended or faint of heart), but it will offend your sensibilities. Tetsuo is a style over substance experience. It cares more about how you feel than what you think and even though the plot eventually reveals itself, you can’t avoid the “What the F*** did I just watch?!” moment.

One might call Tetsuo: The Iron Man a Luddite fantasy, a Reefer Madness against machines. But it’s not that simple and probably not even true. Maybe the movie is proclaiming that we should learn to love the machine. Or perhaps it’s not to mess with a mechaphile. The director of this cult-classic says its about his love-hate relationship with Tokyo. But know that if you suddenly develop rocket heels and a giant drill on your groin, you won’t make it to the office today.[/column] [column size=one_half position=last ]

Tetsuo: The Iron Man is most often called a cyberpunk film, among the most influential to come out of Japan. It happens to share the same release year as the seminal Akira and coincidentally shares the name too: Tetsuo is the character undergoing the strange metamorphosis in Akira. It’s a very apt name: ‘Tetsuo’ means “clear thinking man” or “iron man”. In Akira it is symbolic of how the character changes into a stronger character. But Tetsuo takes the name far more literally.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is most often called a cyberpunk film, among the most influential to come out of Japan. It happens to share the same release year as the seminal Akira and coincidentally shares the name too: Tetsuo is the character undergoing the strange metamorphosis in Akira. It’s a very apt name: ‘Tetsuo’ means “clear thinking man” or “iron man”. In Akira it is symbolic of how the character changes into a stronger character. But Tetsuo takes the name far more literally.

 

The movie found its genesis in a play created by director Shinya Tsukamoto and a theatre troupe that he belonged to. Legend holds that they didn’t want to waste the sets made for the play, so the group decided to make a short arthouse film loosely influenced by the stage play.
The movie found its genesis in a play created by director Shinya Tsukamoto and a theatre troupe that he belonged to. Legend holds that they didn’t want to waste the sets made for the play, so the group decided to make a short art house film loosely influenced by the stage play.
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There are three Tetsuo movies - the latest appearing in 2009, averaging a film every seven years. That was not because of a lack of interest - the director has been approached by people like Quentin Tarantino to created sequels/remakes to the original. The 2009 film, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, takes place in the U.S. and was first conceived in the late 90s. But the 9/11 attacks halted this as the director felt the themes would run too close to the urban destruction seen in New York and didn’t want the movie to appear like it’s taking advantage of the tragedy.
There are three Tetsuo movies – the latest appearing in 2009, averaging a film every seven years. That was not because of a lack of interest – the director has been approached by people like Quentin Tarantino to created sequels/remakes to the original. The 2009 film, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, takes place in the U.S. and was first conceived in the late 90s. But the 9/11 attacks halted this as the director felt the themes would run too close to the urban destruction seen in New York and didn’t want the movie to appear like it’s taking advantage of the tragedy.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: June 30, 2014

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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