Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a "medium sized monster" production. So says a title card in the slow credit scrawl for what has come to be thought of as the ultimate "industrial" film. The "medium sized monster" could refer to just about anything: a man (the medium sized Godzilla), the film itself (a brisk 67 minutes), or the country of Japan. Or it could just be some snide joke. But I think it hints at something more, something inherent to the film and to Japanese culture at large. It is the regimented industrialization of Japanese commerce and culture that is monstrous in Tetsuo. It is the bleak skyline and the hawsers and conduits and telephone wires that blanket the country like spider webs. It is the steady pulse of machine rhythm that is slowly, but surely, replacing the steady heartbeat of nature. It is the repulsion and the attraction of industrial life.
Tetsuo begins with a metal fetishist (director Tsukamoto) cutting open his thigh and inserting a cable into the gaping wound. The fetishist is then promptly run over by an office worker (Tomorowo Taguchi) heading home for the day. The next morning, the office finds several metal whiskers growing from his cheek. Soon his entire body is wrapped in a metal flesh and it draws him towards an apocalyptic showdown with the metal fetishist, who is now, like the office worker, a giant ambulatory pile of rusted metal.
Much has been written about Tsukamoto's surreally disjointed script, his use of super-fast edits and jagged cuts, and the B&W video glare. But when it's all been said and done Tetsuo is not so much a film as it is a scream on film. Shot in 16mm with a shockingly tiny budget, Tetsuo throttled Japan's moribund film community into life when it was first released in 1988. Tsukamoto's frenzied editing and cinematography owed a huge debt to the anarchist films of Sogo Ishii. Ishii's Burst City (Bakuretsu Toshi, 1982) tapped a similar vein a few years earlier. But what sets Tsukamoto's film apart is its virulence. This is viral cinema, hypnotic and infectious and utterly un-turn-away-able. The viewer is repulsed and yet mesmerized by the barrage of images. A salvo that climaxes as the film simply zooms off into infinity.
While it's safe to say there hasn't ever been a film like Tetsuo, this doesn't automatically classify it as a classic, an Asian Un Chien Andalou. While the fact that plot seems irrelevant doesn't constitute a strike against the picture it does make watching Tetsuo, at times, a real chore. After you've watched it once, you're not likely to be flicking it on for guests. And while Tsukamoto does a lot with a meager budget, the threads are evident in a lot of scenes. (Though a bigger budget doesn't mean the picture would be better, Tsukamoto remade the film a few years later.) All in all, Tetsuo is a bold and adventures venture into experimental filmmaking, a violent dsytopic vision of a world - not far from our own - where man and machine meld to make monsters.
Aka Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Iron Man, The Ironman.