Feb 18, 2011

Tetsuo I, II, III (Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto)

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989, 67 mins)

Summary: You’re a regular metal fetishist.  You like to cut yourself and insert bits of metal into the wound.  Hey, it’s a crazy world, right?  You are minding your own business, walking down the street enjoying your own private and harmless perversion when some fool messes up your day with his car.  What do you do?

My first thought after viewing Tetsuo: The Iron Man over a decade ago was, “How did this film ever get made?”  Not because it was bad but because it was so very unorthodox.  I was familiar with weird anime but Tetsuo was to me even more bizarre than Urotsukidoji.  

The backbone of the story isn’t new; it’s been around for hundreds of years, as far back as the Greek tragedies.  A victim takes revenge on his malefactor (known hereafter as the salaryman) with an apt and fitting punishment.  No matter, if the plot involved Tigger in a pink hockey mask bouncing on pumpkins I’d still have watched it.  Why?  Because in writer/director/editor/actor Shinya Tsukamoto’s hands this trite and clichéd plot device exists merely to serve the visuals, not the other way around.  The plot is secondary.   Usually when I have such a realisation I would begin reaching for the stop button but the frenetic cyberpunkesque visual assault that Tsukamoto burned into my retina was a welcome, and moreover, engaging one.

Oh, and there is some of that famous Japanese tentacle porn.
Still reading?

The punishment takes the form of a gruesome transformation.  The flesh of the salaryman is slowly changed into something less organic.  I would say less human but his actions up to this point haven’t really painted him as very humane.  The effects are amazing considering the obviously shoestring budget.

Stylistically Tetsuo: The Iron Man is harsh; it’s an avant-garde greyscale nightmare wherein both the architecture and editing are clearly designed to disorientate the viewer.  Shot on 16 mm film it looks grainy and at times either underexposed or overexposed.  The inclusion of stop-motion photography, probably due to budgetary constraints but perfectly suited, only serves to make it even more anarchic.  It seems to want to make you hate it while at the same time it draws you in with its unique aesthetic. This duplicitous nature is its greatest asset however for there is a beauty to 16mm film that most modern digital cinematography has destroyed and despite the severity of the image that nostalgic beauty shines through. 

Just as the freaks in Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) get aroused by their unhealthy desires so too do the salaryman (the fool in the car) and his wife bring sex into their transgression.  Yes, the two films couldn’t be more different on the surface but the man-meets-machine eroticism that Cronenberg has dealt with in the past is similarly explored in Tetsuo so such a comparison is not as inapplicable as it may initially seem.  The more grotesque the man’s transformation makes him the more his wife desires him.  This attraction to the grotesque was a trait exhibited by, and is a curse inherited from, the metal fetishist.
The sexual union between the couple is an unforgettable scene.  It’s frightening and blackly humorous at the same time and is worth the price of admission alone.

So it’s a film about change and it’s a film about sex and relationships?  Right?  Maybe.
It’s also a film about the individual, and choice, and private secret longings and the potential repercussions of avoiding culpability.  Or is that just throwing labels hoping some will stick in a bid to make sense of it?  Does it even need to be pigeonholed?  While not totally incomprehensible it sure is complicated and it both invites and shuns critique.  I could pick away at it all day and still not have anything concrete.  This film raises more questions than it answers, even after repeated viewings.  If that lack of clarification frustrates you then Tetsuo is not for you.

At times the acting is simply ridiculous, often resembling bad theatre.  The movements are OTT and the expressions exaggerated and comical but once you realise that is all intentional (isn’t it?) that quickly becomes another plus.  At other times it reminded me of the wonders of silent era cinema.  I loved that.  I half expected some intertitles to pop up with something weird like:

The music serves the action admirably; they fit together like two pieces of the same warped jigsaw.  (Note: A link to cuckoo’s review on the music of all three films can be found at the end of my ranting.)  Outside of the score the non-diagetic sound often erupts into a torturous white noise or a cacophonous metal on metal screech.  Think Merzbow deconstructed and remixed by Merzbow’s evil twin.  At times it’s excruciating to listen to.  It also complements the imagery perfectly but a cheese grater on your nervous system would not be an unwelcome trade.  Your ears may well cry for solace but your brain will grin with understanding.  Personally, I loved every agonizing minute of it.

When the salaryman encounters what I like to call ‘the platinum bride of Frankenstein’ things get very strange.  Urotsukidoji’s tentacle antics spring to mind once again.  I shuddered.  And I giggled.

Without going into detail, the final third of the film is a crazy montage of sound and imagery that for some viewers may go on a little too long.  I beg you to persevere because the final scene is one of the most kinetically charged, relentlessly energetic air-punching moments of WTF and awesome combined that I have ever seen.  I was clapping like a happy seal at that point.  

It’s an infuriating and intoxicating visual experience and a beautifully grotesque and engaging trip.  It also features the best tasteless use of a power drill this side of barely acceptable.  Do your eyes a favour and seek it out.

A cyberpunk rocking **** out of 5


Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992, 80 mins)

Summary: You’re a regular Joe salaryman.  You like family dinners and typical boring clichés.  You are minding your own business, out walking, enjoying your happy joy family time when two fools mess up your day with their actions.  What do you do?

Despite featuring the same metal fetishist as before, the second film is not a direct sequel; rather it shares and explores similar themes as the first, hence the similar summary above.

This time the madness is in colour which I thought would bring in a whole new dimension for Director Tsukamoto to play around with.  Unfortunately it loses a lot of its impact.  In many places there is either a blue filter over the lens or some colour correction during post-production; I was unable to determine which.  Elsewhere it is often poorly lit, the aesthetic black and white of before forced the scene to be lit a specific way and it managed to keep the effects looking good but here the transformation isn’t quite as interesting nor as effective.

Tetsuo II: Body Hammer also tries to introduce a proper narrative structure and ends up drawing attention to itself which only serves to highlight and expose the flaws.  It’s still far from conventional but it seems less effective than before.

The plot this time involves a father with a memory block.  The reason for this is revealed as the film progresses so I won’t say any more.  The surfacing of the hidden memory and the big reveal are some of the better aspects of the film.  Certain key scenes from the first film are played out again almost verbatim, either in direct reference or as a means to add some easy gravitas to the plot without having to make it explicit.  I liked those moments.

The transformation this time is fuelled by anger and concern and also fear but I can’t say fear of what without spoilers.  In this respect the transformation can be seen to echo the emotional state of the individual.  He is a product of his environment and not wholly in control of his emotions.  (Aren’t we all?)  The film can be summed up in one sentence: The will to kill versus the will to avenge, fuelled by the insanity of loss.

There is a very overt reference to H R Giger which makes a mention of his biomechanical designs all but impossible to avoid this time.  I’d rather not dwell on that, though.  If that film is to be made it should be the Swiss artist himself that green-lights it (and soon, he’s 71 years old now).  Perhaps he could get Tsukamoto to direct it and just handle production and design duties.  I would vote ‘YES’ to that.

There is one scene which I found very disturbing.  A couple indulge in a very private kind of sex play.  Others may get excited by it.  It was like the scraping of fingernails down the blackboard to me.

I’d like to be able to give Tetsuo II the same praise as its predecessor but the simple fact is it’s not worthy of it, for me at least.  It stumbles where it should have leaped and coils where it should have sprung.  Nevertheless, it should still be applauded for being so downright weird and daring.  Ultimately, the film is a bold experiment that didn’t really payoff second time around. 

A misfired squib ** out of 5


Tetsuo III: The Bullet Man (2009, 79 mins)

Summary: You’re a regular Joe salaryman.  You are minding your own business, walking down the street enjoying your time with your son Tom and talking to your beautiful wife on the telephone when some fool messes up your day with his car.  What do you do?

Twenty years after the first film, Tsukamoto made a third.  And my summary is again almost identical.  So, is Tetsuo still relevant in today’s society?  Can the man/machine concept still shock us like it used to now that we are all more familiar with technology and cybernetics etc?  I’d say yes.  Furthermore, Tsukamoto’s film technique definitely can.

The screen ratios of the previous films were both 4:3 so it’s a joy to finally see Tsukamoto use the 16:9 format.  And from the onset it’s clear that he has grown as a filmmaker and obtained some higher quality lenses.  It’s shot on digital and looks great.   In fact, it looks amazing.  The budget for this must have been more than the other two combined.  The post-production trickery on the image is a welcome addition this time.  

The first major difference you’ll notice between this and the other two is that this one is in English.  No subs.  Personally I would have preferred subs because there are times when it was hard to hear exactly what was said, the voice is low in the mix and the characters mumble a lot.  I had to turn the volume up louder than usual to make sure I heard everything.  Conversely this meant that when the music kicked in it was like a wall of sound that engulfed me and totally drew me into Tsukamoto’s twisted world.

The use of sound is again fantastic.  This time it no longer just complements the imagery, it is inseparable from it.  The noise of the car in the first 10 minutes of the film roared out of my speakers like a demon’s war cry and put my nerves on high alert.  That bit scared the crap out of me.  Then the opening credit sequence rolls like a perverted Talking Heads video and from there I was totally hooked.

The setting is the big city and Anthony, our main protagonist, a half-American, half-Japanese salaryman is alienated by its size and its cold sterility.  The city is a malevolent entity.  We see very little of it but more than once it made me feel like I was watching a J G Ballard novel come to life; a concrete hell filled with personal demons, waiting for their moment to strike.  Most of the action is internal shots so despite the larger frame the action takes place in close quarters; the prison like environments are perhaps reflective of the Tetsuo’s mind.  The lighting is again stylised but much more appropriate to the setting than the second one.  At times it was lit like a horror movie but those moments are themselves a little scary so that works fine.

Tsukamoto once again plays the guy that is the catalyst for the transformation.  I was afraid there would be lots of CGI in place of the stop-motion but I’m happy to say that there isn’t.  Most of the effects are achieved through careful editing or in-camera.  As a result the transformation is neither as invasive nor as violent as before but it’s still unsettling.

Things get freaky in corridors a lot and it’s unnerving to watch; for some it may be downright irritating.  I personally hate lengthy shaky-cam shots but I found the camerawork in The Bullet Man to be acceptable, it sustains the visceral atmosphere and didn’t outstay its welcome.  

Anthony attempts something that the other Tetsuo’s haven’t.  You’ll have to watch the film to find out what I mean as it’s a major plot point.  He is characterized a lot more than the others have been and his journey is a lot more scripted and has more purpose.  The exposition is a little awkward and interrupts the flow but it’s brief.  There is still much repeated from the other films with only slight differences.  The salaryman’s wife takes a more active role and even tries to influence the Tetsuo this time around.  She gives the film something the second one sorely lacked, and even with her poor English language skills I found her to be a welcome addition to the madness.

This is the film the second one should have been; it’s the spiritual sequel to the first one.  It's possible to watch it without having seen the second at all.  if you do, you won't really be missing out on anything.

An on target ***1/2 out of 5

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