Anxiety about industrialisation and technology and their effects on individuals and society in “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”

Shinya Tsukamoto, “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (1989)

Once again Tsukamoto has remade “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” in the form of “Tetsuo: Bullet Man”, the previous remake having been “Tetsuo: Body Hammer” in 1991, so it’s worth looking at what the 1989 student film original, made on a budget of less than US$1,000, might mean for current audiences. The plot is very basic and uses a cast of six actors of whom three play major characters. An unnamed youth usually known as the Metal Fetishist (Tsukamoto) panics after mutilating himself with a steel tube and runs out onto the road. A car driven by an unnamed salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) knocks down the youngster; the salaryman and his girlfriend passenger (Kei Fujiwara) believe he is dead so they dump his body in a forest. Later the salaryman begins to transform into a scrap-metal monster and realises that the Metal Fetishist isn’t dead after all but is controlling his metamorphosis and channelling his rage and frustration into something very sinister indeed.

The use of black-and-white film is effective in detailing the grimy industrial environment of urban Tokyo where the salaryman and the fetishist live: the textures of cables, wires, toxic goop and industrial waste look so detailed they take on a very inhuman life of their own. Fast-forwarding, lightning-fast edits, flashbacks, close-up images (some so close up that you can see saliva hanging off teeth in mouths), nightmare scenes, stop-motion animation and the odd sequence that has no relation to the plot make for a fast-paced film that ratchets up the tension to the moment when the salaryman is forced to admit to his sin and face off against the Metal Fetishist. Cables and wires shudder with a malevolent tentacle demon soul and pullulate like hypersexed parasite bacteria in a new host victim.

Many taboos and assumptions particular to modern Japanese culture come in for a hatchet job: the post-1945 notion that technology is humanity’s friend and servant gets a good hammering and the salaryman’s demonstration of anger may well be a cutting comment on expectations of male white-collar workers in 1980s Japanese society as compliant and uncomplaining cogs in a machine network that exploits them and their efforts. Social beliefs about Japanese women as meek and mild also get roasted: the two females in this film are transformed by their contact with the Metal Fetishist into ravenous sexual predators. The salaryman has a nightmare about his girlfriend anally raping him with a penis that’s part-python/part-electric cable. Some viewers might interpret the portrayal of women in “Tetsuo …” as indicative of dislike and distrust of women and their sexuality but this depiction is part of a greater criticism Tsukamoto makes which might unintentionally reflect his own views on how men and women should treat each other. It should be said that at the very moment the salaryman and his girlfriend meet the Metal Fetishist a bit too head-on, the youth has cursed them with his flesh-metal fusion obsession; from then on everything about the couple including their dreams and thoughts is manipulated by him to torment them, and this includes turning their expectations of each other upside-down. This suggests that contact with industrial society and its values warps natural human drives and turns them into unnatural, monstrous phenomena.

There’s plenty of hilarious black humour in scenes where the Metal Fetishist, meeting the salaryman in person for the first time, presents him with a bouquet of flowers and a female train commuter under the fetishist’s control early in the film pursues and harasses the salaryman relentlessly, pausing only to peek at herself in her mirror and fix her hair a bit. The funniest and most disturbing scenes involve the salaryman with his big Black-and-Decker pecker chasing his girlfriend around their apartment; she knifes him and he drills her in a mutual orgasmic bloodbath. Apart from taking the term “screwing” to its most logical extreme, this part of the film may say something about how the sexual act has become mechanised and robbed of human emotion in a technological society. Equally lunatic and twisted is the fight between the Metal Fetishist and the salaryman: this battle of sexual penetration metaphors ends in an ultimate orgasm where corporeal boundaries are literally dissolved and the pair bring forth a new offspring. The true purpose of sexual intercourse in the industrial environment is to generate more machine beings to spread the contagion of technology throughout the world: the new creature with both the Metal Fetishist and the salaryman at its helm rides off to conquer the Tokyo suburban wilderness.

The soundtrack is important in this film: one comic moment comes when the salaryman spoon-feeds his girlfriend and as she drags the food off his fork with her teeth, metal-scraping noises can be heard. The music by Chu Ishikawa is a bouncy industrial rock pop that suits the film’s frenetic pace and the dense montages of images that each last for a split-second.

The undercurrents of “Tetsuo …” are at once malevolent, pessimistic, cartoony and absurd; the subconscious human fears that it dredges up can be very confronting for many people. Jokes and ideas are taken to their logical extreme that milks them as much for laughs as for horror. This is a definitely a film for people who like being challenged and confronted with ideas and themes that riff on the deepest human fears and anxieties. Humour is used to allay some of these anxieties and make what could have been a highly intense film more bearable but its resolution, which may be a surprise to some viewers and is at once funny and sinister, is firm and uncompromising about the eventual fate of humanity.



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