For young goth types as I was in the ’90s, watching Tetsuo: The Iron Man was almost a rite of passage. You had to see this film; it epitomised everything we wanted to be stylistically. With an industrial score, cyberpunk imagery, body horror, extreme sex and violence, surrealism, Tetsuo had it all in just over 60 minutes of film.
I first saw it accidentally, however. My memories are vague, to say the least, but I remember catching it on TV late one night. I was around 16 or 17 years old. I had a black and white TV back then, so I wasn’t sure if it was truly in colour. It wasn’t, and it’s all the more surreal for being monochrome. It wasn’t how it looked that caught my eye though. It was my ears that pricked up when I heard a pounding industrial score which, for a massive Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Front 242 and Skinny Puppy fan as I was, really sparked my interest.
I don’t think I looked away for the next 50 minutes (I’d missed the start). I was enthralled, slightly repulsed and definitely confused as to what the hell was going on. All I knew was that this was brilliant. It’s taken me almost 25 years to finally understand what is happening in Tetsuo. I don’t think my young brain really got it at all back then; I certainly didn’t study film as I do now, so watching this last week was almost like watching with new eyes.
The story begins with a wild-haired young man whose face we won’t see clearly until much later (writer/director Shinya Tsukamoto) who walks into an abandoned industrial site, where he descends deep into the bowels of one of the machinery spaces to perform a bizarre surgery on himself. Cutting open the flesh of his right thigh, he takes up some threaded steel rod and inserts it into the wound as deep as it will go, roughly parallel to his femur. After bandaging himself up, the instantaneous appearance of a mass of maggots suggests that the operation didn’t go quite as well as anticipated. The Metal Fetishist runs out into the city, cackling like a madman and promptly gets run over by a car when he stops for no apparent reason in the middle of a street. It’ll be some considerable while before we’re able to piece together the significance of all that.
What turns out to be several days later, a salaryman (Tomoworo Taguchi) has an odd experience while shaving. He’s just about finished when he notices something protruding from his cheek. It certainly isn’t a hair. It looks like a few millimetres of metal wire. The salaryman pokes at it experimentally, and something bursts inside his cheek, spraying the mirror with blood. He sticks a plaster on it and hops off to work.
There’s no indication that our somewhat complacent salaryman is actually named Tetsuo, but that’s what I’m going to call him for simplicity’s sake; it’s a fairly common masculine name in Japan, although literally, it means “iron man.” I suspect that Tsukamoto had both usages in mind when he chose the title for this film. Anyway, while Tetsuo is at work, he gets a phone call from his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara), who makes a cryptic reference to a hit-and-run accident. Then, on the way home, he has an encounter so weird and terrifying that not even he can brush it off.
Feeling queasy after the long train ride, Tetsuo sits down heavily on a bench in the subway station beside a bespectacled woman (Nobu Kanaoka) who greets his arrival with some alarm. Her attention is quickly drawn away, though, by a clot of somehow organic-looking machinery that seems to have appeared out of nowhere on the floor near her foot. She doesn’t realise this, naturally, but the peculiar gizmo contains a video link to the lair of the Metal Fetishist from the opening scene, and he’s watching with palpable anticipation as she reaches down to prod the device with a pair of tweezers from her handbag.
The contraption entraps the woman’s hand; it turns her into a cyborg zombie under his control. If you are thinking that Tetsuo might have been driving that car in the prologue, you will have your suspicions doubled when the Metal Fetishist directs the woman to attack Tetsuo. She hounds him across town before he manages to destroy her in an auto repair garage. It’s never made clear how he escapes, but he steers himself into the garage in an illness-ridden stupor, discovering that more of his body is turning into a hybrid of flesh and metal (his ankles begin spurting exhaust fumes as if they were jet-powered). Tetsuo kills the mutating woman by wrapping his arms around her so tightly that her spine breaks.
That night, Tetsuo has a disturbing dream in which his girlfriend becomes a cyborg succubus and sodomises him with a shower hose-like metal snake projecting from her crotch. The reality to which he awakens is more disturbing yet, however — Tetsuo has a bad infection. Slowly but surely, bit by bit, his body is transforming into machinery and electronics, and from the looks of things, the process is excruciating. Not as painful, mind you, as what happens to his girlfriend after she sees what’s happening and tries to demonstrate that it makes no difference to her affection for him. This is a Japanese movie at least tangentially concerned with robots, so you know there has to be a power drill involved at some point, right? Okay, now which part of Tetsuo’s body do you reckon is most likely to be turned into a giant, barely controllable drill as his condition advances? Yes. Ouch.
Just how did Tetsuo catch this strange affliction, you may wonder? Apparently, it’s contagious, and Tetsuo picked it up from the guy with the metal rod in his leg after smashing into him with his car. Tetsuo’s girlfriend — who we now learn to have been along with him at the time — might have called what they did a hit and run, but that isn’t entirely accurate. They did stop to see if their victim was okay, only when they determined that he wasn’t; Tetsuo flung him into the car and drove out to the country to dispose of the evidence rather than face the consequences.
It would appear that the Metal Fetishist isn’t the only one around here who gets off on some pretty sick stuff. The act of committing such a serious crime got the couple so hot that they had to drop everything and have sex right there at the top of the embankment over which they’d just tossed his body. We, of course, know that he wasn’t dead at all — and so did they after the girl looked down into the gully and saw him watching. The Metal Fetishist has a kind of natural biological affinity for machines, clearly connected in one way or another to the chunk of steel that spontaneously appeared inside his brain one day. And now it seems that carrying his body to and from the car accounts for Tetsuo’s affliction.
Meanwhile, the aim of all that manhandling is what accounts for the vendetta that now motivates the Metal Fetishist. All of the previous comes to light a few days after Tetsuo’s girlfriend’s death, when he drops in at Tetsuo’s apartment to face him at last. And now that we get a good look at Metal Fetishist, it appears that his condition isn’t just a disease the way it is in Tetsuo’s case.
Believe it or not, Tetsuo: The Iron Man gets significantly weirder from there. For instance, I haven’t yet raised the subjects of rust symbiosis, television telepathy, the Battle Bum (Renji Ishibashi, Audition), or the Metal Fetishist’s supervillain aspirations. The Metal Fetishist reanimates Tetsuo’s girlfriend’s body, which is consumed with corrosion and, once the rust falls away, is revealed to be the Metal Fetishist himself. He hounds Tetsuo to an abandoned warehouse in a stop-motion sequence, rusting all metal objects along the way. Both Tetsuo and the Metal Fetishist become more and more of a hulking metal monstrosity the more they infect metal. Before the Fetishist can claim victory, however, Tetsuo drills him and absorbs him, melding their bodies together in…well, let’s face it, it’s a tank that looks like a dick. It’s a dick tank. Permanently fused together, Tetsuo and the Metal Fetishist resolve to infect the entire world with their disease, referring to it as ‘their love’. As the final card states, there is no happy ending — it is game over.
Phallic and otherwise sexual imagery is used throughout Tetsuo’s 64-minute runtime to grotesque effect, most often associated with Tetsuo’s metamorphosis. In addition to everything else, there is a non-sequitur scene in which a man (the Battle Bum) brandishes a metal rod as, erm… his rod, holding it close to his crotch and twisting it in what I imagine would be a pretty uncomfortable masturbation technique. All of this imagery culminates in the vehicle that shares an undeniable resemblance to throbbing male genitalia shown in the film’s final moments. Tsukamoto seems to be making the statement that if we’re not careful, this attitude of toxic industrialisation as dictated by the all-consuming patriarchy will ultimately eat the world.
But more blatant than that, Tetsuo, the salaryman, appears to have repressed gay tendencies, which he tries to keep out of his mind, but they begin taking over until he cannot control his true feelings. He dreams — or perhaps fantasies — about his girlfriend sodomising him; then, after her death by drill, the Metal Fetishist reanimates her body, from which he reveals himself and presents Tetsuo with flowers.
The two men have a strange love/hate relationship throughout the movie. At the very end, though, Tetsuo is entirely under the Fetishist’s control. Tetsuo has given in to his desires, and his drill awakens. Inside the mass of metal they have become, they share a tender moment — far more sincere and loving than the sex between Tetsuo and his girlfriend. A successful seduction, perhaps? You have to remember, of course, that this movie was made in the late ’80s, in an era of fear and ignorance about AIDS and HIV. It is quite possible that the director was suggesting this ‘gay disease’, as it was believed back then, could destroy humanity. Portraying the more openly gay Metal Fetishist as an obsessive and perverted psychopath that intentionally spreads the disease is problematic, to say the least.
Who is the Battle Bum? This sequence appears to be a memory of the Metal Fetishist’s, so he was perhaps an abuser — perhaps his ‘rod’ was what infected the Fetishist in the first place. Again, this is somewhat problematic to suggest that he only became queer after the trauma of being abused as a youth and that homosexuality is a perversion and a choice rather than simply a sexual preference.
On the other hand, it could be seen as a celebration of being happy with who you are and comfortable in your own skin — or metal as the case may be. The Metal Fetishist is beautiful; he glimmers with a silvery sheen and is in total control of his life and desires. He embraces who he is and is not afraid to show it. In that sense, the movie is a triumphant love story. While it looks to be far from the truth, Tetsuo’s final words are, ‘I feel great’ as silver bile pours from his mouth. He’s happy being full metal, and he and the Metal Fetishist are going to destroy the world together. Hooray!
In the end, though, the details of the plot, mad as they may be, are only half of what makes Tetsuo the landmark of strangeness that it is. It’s how Shinya Tsukamoto tells this story that truly positions it as the herald of what has come to be called Asian Extreme cinema.
When Tetsuo first made its way to the West, the only point of reference that anyone seemed to be able to find for it was Eraserhead, and that’s not a bad comparison if we’re talking strictly about style and technique. Shinya Tsukamoto and David Lynch both turned budgetary constraints into a creative windfall by shooting in black and white, exaggerating the coldness, hardness, and dirtiness of their urban settings until they transformed into inhumane industrial hellscapes. Tetsuo and Eraserhead both make extensive use of narrative fragmentation and unsettling dream sequences to keep the viewer in a state of constant disorientation and uncertainty — and in both films, it can be difficult to know where the protagonists’ nightmares begin and end because their realities are equally nightmarish. And that, my friends, is how you make a cult classic.