Tetsuo Iron Man was the debut feature from the unpredictable Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto. It’s a foreign film, but it’s not THAT kind of foreign film. As in, don’t think you’re going to be sitting there reading subtitles. There’s really very little dialog in the film, and what’s there isn’t usually important. It plays something like a silent film, so definitely put it in your queue the next time you log into your movie download service, whether or not you’re usually a fan of Japanese cinema.
The main character is a Japanese salary man who is sort of the Japanese equivalent of the “everyman” character. One day, metal starts growing from his body for… Well, pretty much no reason at all. It’s really the same sort of Japanese surrealism as Kobo Abe writes, and drives home the same basic idea, that life is strange and unpredictable.
The movie was based on the idea of making a monster movie like Godzilla, but with a human sized beast. So the Salary Man, as he transforms more and more into a heaping hunk of metal, has to do battle with Tetsuo, who, also, has grown into a heap of metal. They have a showdown in a junkyard where both have developed the ability to absorb all of the metal around them through… Magnetism, or chemistry or something. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.
The movie really helped to define Japanese cyberpunk. There had been earlier efforts in the genre such as Burst City, but this one was the one that really defined the genre as being about industrialism and the Frankenstein-esque relations between man and machine. Where American cyberpunk tends to focus on the computer age, Japanese cyberpunk is more about antiquated machinery and post WWII fear.
The style of the movie is what really makes it special. It’s fast, it’s confusing, it looks like a nightmare with a stark black and white look. It really does feel more like a bad dream than it does like anything that could ever happen in real life.
The movie primarily draws influence from Eraserhead and Cronenberg’s Videodrome. A warning, if those movies made you squeamish, this one will, too.
Tsukamoto would later go on to create a number of incredible films, including Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet, and a sequel to the original Tetsuo, called Tetsuo: Body Hammer. He’s now working on a third in the series, Tetsuo: The Bulletman. All of his films focus on some similar themes regarding violence, sexuality and the male ego. If you like Tetsuo Iron Man, check out Tokyo Fist, which similarly deals with the concept of rage as a component of transformation.
Tsukamoto is also an interesting actor, doing some bit parts for various Takashi Miike films. He also has another Tetsuo movie coming out, Tetsuo: Bulletman. It’s clear that, while he’s already been making movies for twenty years, he is nevertheless just now warming up.
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