Feb 19, 2011

TETSUO I - II & TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN - composed by Chu Ishikawa

Some people don't like having their senses attacked and beaten into a pulp.

I do.

So naturally writer/director Shinya Tsukamoto's frantic Tetsuo sci-fi/thriller series appealed to me from the get-go. The industro-punk trio of films carry themselves like a '70's era David Cronenberg film overdosing on amphetamines, with elements of twisted, campy humor and stomach churning erotica spattered throughout them.
Just as suitably discordant and raged-induced is composer Chu Ishikawa's ear-splitting transgressive score. Taking elements from his industrial percussive project "Der Eisenrost", Ishikawa uses his trademark "metal percussion" sound and works it into the films seamlessly adapting to Tsukamoto's nightmarishly crude visions. Ishikawa would impress the cult status director so much, Tetsuo would only be the beginning of a long time working partnership for the two sensory contortionists.
First up is the 1994 album release of the Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo: Body Hammer packaged onto one disc and simply titled Tetsuo I-II.
The score that Ishikawa produced for the first film in 1989, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, was clearly made with a low budget but it worked so well in it's context, budget didn't matter. It was so creatively raw, noisy and very, very dirty, Tsukamoto couldn't have asked for anything better. It split your ears wide open when needed and grated the nerves with such wonderful precision, I knew I had to have this on album to relive that feverish auditory offense over and over again.
Sadly I was severely let down by the album that was eventually produced long after the two films were released. For some strange reason, Ishikawa opted to re-record the score for both the first and second film, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer and release them on a single disc that runs for just under forty minutes. Not only is it re-recorded but it also appears to be rearranged to form a "comprehensible" listening experience. The sound is cleaned up and almost too precise to actually satisfy anyone that was hoping for that nerve-shattering sound they heard in the first film. I found that the album completely ignored the David Lynch-esque '50's rock that portrayed the "once-happy" couple or maybe it was the car's front end theme...I'm still not clear on that yet. No matter. Perhaps the reason behind leaving this particular composition off the album was because it wasn't actually Ishikawa's piece. I can't be too sure, as it's next to impossible to find anything on what was written for the films and what wasn't. More on that later.
After getting over the initial disappointment that the "soundtrack" album was not what I was hoping for, I decided to give it a chance anyways.
As it turns out only three tracks (16 minutes) on this album represent the first film, those cues being the curiously titled "Megatron", "Mausoleum" and "Lost".
"Megatron" (the standout track that defines The Iron Man segments of the album) appears to be a more agreeable version of the central noise motif heard prominently throughout the first film. Sure, it's noisy and not tailor made for radio play but it still doesn't quite have the same paranoid impact as the original version. Nevertheless there are some interesting elements heard on this track that's grown on me and has resulted in many repeated listens. Some descending synthesized vibe organ is played over rhythmic metallic banging and clanging that strangely develops into something that wouldn't be out of place in an industrial night club filled with "sad" goth boys and snotty vamp girls. It vaguely reminds me of the music one would hear in an old school video game, similar to Castlevania, that would play over the first incarnation of the final boss. If I'm not mistaken this video game sound is probably intentional, seeing as the final image we see on screen of this first film are the words: "Game Over".
"Mausoleum" is the track from The Iron Man that suffers the most from it's re-recording. In the original film the shakuhachi flute that bursts up and down the scale gives off a feeling of mental fragility like it's struggling to stay together. It's actually quite striking and ingenious the way it's used in the film. Sadly, on record the flute is mixed so prominently and cleanly into the forefront it loses all the desired effect and gives off a feeling of power and intimidation, quite the opposite of what it originally portrayed.
Strangely enough, "Lost" is almost an identical extended version of what was heard on film. It's the closest thing to a pleasantly calming theme that the music in the first film ever got to. It floats through in a dreamlike state that echoes shades of a percussion heavy, synthesized reworking of Philip Glass' second movement on his Metamorphosis project. Coincidence?
The lackluster second installment in the series, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer is represented on this album with six cues, totaling up to nearly 22 minutes worth of material.
"The Sixth Tooth" begins with promise easing us in with an unsettling introduction that resembles Trent Reznor's Quake video game score. However it is quick to disintegrate into campy early 90's synth rock that I suspect is a more colorful and irksome reworking of the "Megatron" motif we heard from the first film. This carries onto for about 4 minutes until it revives itself, by completely turning over to a driving percussive charge met with a synthetic drilling sound on the way out.
"Rana-Porosa Porosa I & II" both share the same chord progression, only the first one is played to a more upbeat tempo, while the second is a dramatically slower tempo almost falling into ambience. The first is just plain annoying and seems to meander on for far too long. It's like somebody taught a monkey some simple Technotronic hooks on the synthesizer and that's all they taught the tortured primate. The second part is a bit of an improvement mostly because it clocks in at less than 2 minutes and plays the mood with more of dreamlike subtlety. For the life of me, I've scanned the film twice and can't seem to find either parts included. Although, there is an even more annoying motif played during chase scenes that bares some strong similarities to this motif but is not quite the same thing. Perhaps, Ishikawa realized this by the time the re-recordings came along and went with a slightly different direction with this particular composition. Either way, it's still bothersome to the ears...and not in a good way like the rest of the score is.
Next up we have "Dinosauroid" (what is with these track titles?) and it is simply a nerve-grating, ear-splitting joy to play at a very high volume. It bangs, it clangs and it drills into your head with such a driving rhythmic charge I can't help but smile and shake my head at the absurdity it beholds. It has all the charm of early '90's industrial music with a hint of snarky humor to poke and prod at your all ready dwindling patience.
Finally, "A Burned Figure" is the definite highlight of The Body Hammer's portion of the album. It reminds me of a stripped down version of Ministry's Dream Song from their The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste album. I only wish Ishikawa had decided to release the vocalizations from this track as heard in the film as well. On film the vocals were left to play out a cappella and it's actually quite beautiful and moving in it's original element. Here they are quite pleasant but don't share the same emotional impact they had in the film.
What's odd and somewhat annoying about The Body Hammer soundtrack is that the source material isn't credited for whatever reason and forces you to do extensive research to find out what it was that was playing during key scenes. Charles Gounod's "Ave Maria" is fairly recognizable and played several times throughout Body Hammer but the song played over the end credits is not. If you're like me and are interested in seeking it out, you should know you'll be hunting for Tomoyasu Hotei's song "Materials" on his 1988 album Guitarhythm.
In conclusion (sort of), Tetsuo I-II is a moderately good album that has some 4 star material on it but also has it's fair share of 1 to 2 star material as well. It loses even more praise for not being the original recordings from the film. Had it been the original recordings, I'm sure I would have been more enthusiastic about it.
While researching for this album, I did discover that there is a pricey 3-CD release of the original recordings from Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer and the soundtrack to the third film, Tetsou: The Bullet Man. It is an import and probably more trouble than it's worth to order, so I will more than likely never get around to purchasing it but it is nice to know that Ishikawa had the sense to release the the scores they way the fans wanted it in the first place.
...and with that, we come to the Tetsuo: The Bullet Man portion of this lengthy score review:
Right off the bat, I can honestly say that I appreciate this album eminently more than the first album, as this actually is the original soundtrack from the film.
The album opens like the film itself, with a beautifully titled track call "Scal" it's intense, terrifying and very, very intriguing. A heavily reverberated droning builds itself up over the course of a minute, penetrating your sense of well being and sanity.
After that intense first minute has taken you out of your comfort zone we are then treated to the nightmarish "Sparky". A wicked aural journey into a Skinny Puppy-esque soundscape. A possessed distorted voice whispers into your head only to be invaded by a LOUD banging with the treble cranked up to the elusive 11, it's guaranteed to damage your sound system or hearing if it's turned up too loud.
"Sand I" & "Sand II" are companion pieces at opposites ends of the album. They shatter the nerves with some prominently clear clanging, while a deeply distorted rhythmic beat plays in the back along with a someone chaotically tooting on that shakuhachi flute again. This is what the chase theme from the second film should have been.
The "metal percussive" arrangements that Ishikawa is known for is the most apparent in the "Double I" & "Double II" tracks. They're abrasively intrusive and downright dirty sounding. The sounds of scraping metal crackles and sears the eardrums with no such thing as an apology.
Things settle down for the three "Born" cues all placed back to back. A mournful synth-drone is washed over the industrialized palette that creates a sense of floating. As calm as these cues might be, an impression of something bad remains buried deeply into the background.
"Depth" is my personal favorite cue. It's noticeably softer than some of the other compositions on the album but by no means is it any less distressing. It sputters out a strange mutated brass blare, as a very, very upsetting wail cuts in and out of the mix. A synthesized cello begins marching into the mishmash of harsh racket, developing a sense of irrational urgency that we don't really need but it's just so damned bewildering you can't help but to continue listening.
It's not long before things get extremely aggressive again, as "Zinc" grabs you by the scruff of the neck and takes you for quite the beating. While it's not a very interesting track musically or original , it's everything I've come to love about the Tetsuo sound. Loud, angry, surreal and makes quite an impression on you.
"Block" introduces the use of an electric bass into the palette of instruments and sounds that Ishikawa has used so far in the series. Why he chose to use it so late into the series mystifies a bit, as it works quite well with what's all ready been established and would have been interesting to hear more of this mixture.
Finally we get to what is probably the highlight of the entire series for a lot of people: Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails' inevitable contribution to the series, "Theme For Tetsuo: The Bullet Man". It serves as the end credits to the film and might ultimately close the entire series if Tsukamoto decides not to make another one. I might like Trent Reznor's work with NIN and his other musical projects but I feel this just doesn't belong with Ishikawa's all ready brilliantly established metallic sound created for the series. Had Reznor decided to make use of Ishikawa's techniques and sound palette I probably would have enjoyed this cue quite a bit more.
All in all I find the album presentation and recording of Tetsuo: The Bullet Man to be my favorite of the two soundtrack albums by a tremendous landslide.
Chu Ishikawa's created the perfect soundscape to compliment Shinya Tsukamoto's harsh industrial images onscreen. Both visuals and sound leave such a lasting impression it can't be denied that they were really onto something with this project.
Ishikawa's Tetsuo scores aren't for everybody...well...most people actually, but if it's harsh industrial music that tickles your fancy than the most recent album is a must have. While the first album disappoints quite a bit, there is some good material worth checking out as long as you know what you're actually paying for.

Tetsuo I - II as a soundtrack album * out of 5

Tetsuo I - II as a stand alone album *** out of 5

Tetsuo III: The Bullet Man - **** out of 5

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For further interest, check out Dr Faustus' extensive review of the three films at this link:
Tetsuo I, II, III (Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto)

1 comment:

Christophe Thockler said...

What a nice article, full of passion. It's not easy to find informations on these soundtrack.
Tsukamoto is one of the best director around, and nobody knows him, that's a shame.
Thanks a lot for the name of the end credits on Body Hammer, I was searching it for ages!