Sunday, August 28, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: TETSUO, THE IRON MAN (1989)

Tetsuo, the Iron Man
Directed by/Edited by/Art Direction by/Produced by Shinya Tsukamoto
Cinematography by Shinya Tsukamoto and Kei Fujiwara
Music by Chu Ishikawa
Costume Designs by Kei Fujiwara

Starring
Tomorowo Taguchi as Man
Kei Fujiwara as Woman
Nobu Kanaoka as Woman In Glasses
Naomasa Musaka as Doctor
Renji Ishibashi as Tramp
Shinya Tsukamoto as Metal Fetishist

A Kaijyu Theatre Production



"Undisciplined self-penetration is no liberation, but is perceived as a form of biological chaos."
-Jerzy Grotowski


I first saw Tetsuo, the Iron Man when I was a freshman in high school. The cover of the VHS box on the Blockbuster shelf had some bug-eyed metallic looking dude on the cover that reminded me of the Golem from those ancient silent movies. The back of the box talked about a guy who worshiped metal. It hinted at mutation and destruction. I thought it was maybe related to the anime epic Akira. Anyone who's ever seen and loved Akira is unlikely to forget the name of Tetsuo, or Kaneda for that matter. Nor or they likely to forget the spectacular biological and psionic meltdowns that make that movie so memorable. The image of the metallic man and the idea of humanity and machine merging also evoked in me memories of Robocop and the live action 8-Man movie I had seen recently. I can't remember if I rented this movie with my father or if I went and got it by myself. Either way, I was the only person in my household interested in watching it.

I was a privileged kid. I had my own room, my own TV and VCR, my own Super Nintendo Entertainment System, my NES was still functional, and I even had a Sega CDX which was a compact combination of the Sega Genesis and the Sega CD. I sat, alone in my bedroom, sitting through trailers for obscure foreign films. I don't remember what any of those movies were, but they all looked, with a few exceptions, a lot more interesting than anything I'd seen at the actual movie theatre in my short lifespan.

In middle school, just a year or two before, I had discovered the movies of John Woo and Akira Kurosawa and Jackie Chan and Wong Kar-Wai, so I fancied myself knowledgeable about world cinema. Anime movies like Akira, Golgo 13, and Fist of the North Star fueled my adolescent fantasies of retribution and annihilation. I'd also discovered the joys of George A. Romero and his outrageous zombie epics. I was hungry for gore, guns that fired endlessly and only needed to be reloaded when it looked cool, and flesh eating hordes of shopping mall assholes looking to tear people's guts out. I wanted psychokinetic showdowns between enraged adolescents that would sunder the universe. I wanted heavily armed heroes punctured by hundreds of bullets whirling through the air in slow motion, geysering blood from every wound. I wanted samurai in full armor slicing enemies in half and acrobatic martial artists who never take a break to catch their breath or get a sip of water. I wanted pure sensation.

Well, I was about to get what I wanted and then some.

I don't even remember understanding Tetsuo, the Iron Man the first time I saw it. In fact, the opening imagery of the lone man walking through some kind of scrap yard to his hideout was so off-kilter and obscure that I had a hard time telling what was happening. The movie was shot in blasted out black and white, everything looked like it was taking place in the presence of some harsh, blinding light. I could tell that a guy was sitting in the middle of all manner of metallic scrap. He had pictures of Olympic runners cut out of magazines stuck to various bits of metal junk. There's a strange, insistent beat, like someone pounding a metallic surface with an electrified steel rod, or maybe a lightsaber switched to bludgeon mode. The guy is sitting with his metal junk, breathing heavy, and he starts cutting on the inside of his thigh, stabbing with some sharp metal object, making the blood flow. He's mutilating himself in time to the strange music. And then he decides to put a metal pipe or something into the wound in his leg. He goes running out of his hideout and gets hit by a car. 1950s prom music starts to play. The self-mutilator sees the words NEW WORLD emblazoned on the grill of the car that has run him down. Cue title card.

And then there's a guy in a suit and glasses, a real square looking dude. The beat picks up, grows more insistent. A light strobes on and off, and then the square looking dude starts flailing around, doing a kind of jerky slamdance. Sweat, or maybe liquid metal, goes flying in all directions. I was left with the sensation of a great power manifesting. That this guy in the suit and glasses was about to unleash some destructive energy or something.

But I was confused the first time I saw it. I thought the guy mutilating himself and the guy in the suit and glasses were the same person. The style of shooting and editing were so radically different from the movies I was used to watching that I didn't understand everything that was happening. There were people doing things, violent, forceful, perverse things, and there was music, and there was a sense of momentum. But it was all so different, in a grammatical sense, than the movies I was used to watching. There were no conventional establishing shots, no obvious musical cues to indicate who the good guys and the bad guys were, it was just sensation, rhythm and power. It compelled me even as it confused me.

Later, even stranger things start to happen. The guy in the suit and glasses is standing on a subway platform and gets chased by a woman who is seemingly possessed by a strange piece of metallic junk. The suit-and-glasses guy escapes, but seems to have a kind of bizarre private life. He has weird metal shit growing out of his cheek. He tries to cut the spur off with his shaving razor, but his skin breaks splattering blood all over the sink and mirror. The skin gives out, but the metal spur abides. The suit-and-glasses guy has a hallucination where his girlfriend transforms into some kind of burlesque dancer with a robot snake for a penis. His girlfriend does a kind of bump and grind number, and then anally penetrates him with the robot snake penis.

And then the suit-and-glasses guy starts transforming into a metallic monster. The metal is growing out of his body, plating him over in layers. It causes him great pain. He sprouts a high-powered drill for a penis and chases his girlfriend around their tiny house. Is this retribution for his fantasy of being raped by his girlfriend's non-existent robot snake penis? What kind of fucked-up logic is that? Mr. Suit-and-Glasses seems to be going through some changes. Like, Ozzy Osbourne kinds of changes.

But then, a new tormentor appears: the self-mutilator from the opening of the film. It seems he's been the mastermind behind all of these bizarre mutations and hallucinations. The self-mutilator, or metal fetishist, has some strange psycho-kinetic powers that allows him to manipulate human minds and machines. He also is seemingly having an impact on the normal course of human biology, causing organic cells and metal to merge and form a strange and sinister new partnership. This master manipulator also wears some wild-ass stage makeup, and seemingly has a burning attraction for Mr. Suit-and-Glasses. But it's not your usual kind of courtship. The metal fetishist and Mr. Suit-and-Glasses both start to manifest psychic powers and layers of armored skin, and they engage in a combination duel-to-the-death/courtship dance with heavy-duty sadomasochistic over and undertones.

This was all something I had definitely never seen before. I was glad I was watching the movie alone. Not that my parents ever really cared what I watched or did not watch, but I felt like I was watching something forbidden, something taboo. It was awesome! Mom and Dad hanging out would've killed the buzz.

In fact, I can only remember a handful of times my father ever warned me against watching something. One time when I was a kid and we had rented The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. I believe this was sometime in elementary school. My father didn't think it was appropriate that his little son should hear the toilet humor oneupsmanship between Andrew Dice Clay and Gilbert Gottfried. He stopped the movie, and then sent me to bed. But minutes later, I heard him firing up the movie. You see, my father always thought he was being slick by watching trashy movies late at night when everyone was supposed to be asleep, but he always cranked the volume just a bit too loud. I guess his hearing wasn't so great after years of servicing jet engines on the flight decks of aircraft carriers. This act of parental responsibility struck me as doubly unjust: not only was my father watching what he had forbidden me to watch, but he was also a thoroughly foul-mouthed ex-sailor. By the time I was eight years old I had heard every conceivable swear word, racial slur, and insulting epithet imaginable. And this guy had the gall to be offended by the juvenile posturing of a second-rater like the Diceman?

On another occasion, my father warned me against watching Killing Zoe, an ultraviolent bank robbery/hostage crisis thriller set in Paris, France. The villain of the movie, and the most memorable character, is a raging psychopath who gleefully shoots unarmed women in the mouth and has no concern with whether he or his gang survive their latest caper. He is self-destruction incarnate. This villain is also an intravenous drug user. And it was this last character trait that worried my father.

"They do some stupid stuff in this movie," my father grimly intoned. "I don't want you to ever do any of that stuff, okay?"

"What do they do?"

"Well, there's a lot of shooting drugs in that movie. Just real stupid stuff that I don't want you to ever do, all right?"

"Um, yeah, okay."

But mi paterfamilias didn't forbid me from watching the movie. Nor did he object to the chief villain's maniacal disregard for human life. No, there was no admonition to never resort to violence to solve life's problems, "I never want you to pick up a gun, my son, or ever strike out in anger at your fellow human beings!" No. None of that. My father, the wannabe role model, had no problems with women getting shot in the mouth, or the wholesale slaughter of a building full of people by automatic weapons fire. Nope. He was hung up on the drugs. "Just Say No!" My father was momentarily inhabited by the mind of Nancy Reagan.

But then again, my father and I had watched plenty of ultraviolent movies together. Schwarzenegger, Dirty Harry, westerns, Indiana Jones, the kinds of movies where one tough dude wipes out legions of bad guys. My father never batted an eye. But God forbid Dirty Harry fool around with a joint, or Indy Jones get addicted to pain killers. Think about it. Dirty Harry hung out in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a high stress personality type. You don't go around with that Clint Eastwood-type look on your face and not have an ulcer. Dirty Harry probably hit up all kinds of chemical mood enhancers. And Indy Jones? The dude got dragged under a military truck at high speed. He got the shit knocked out of him by the big, bald Nazi scumbag at the airfield. He's been shot a couple times, if memory serves. Yeah, I think Indy Jones was on the road to pill-popperdom.

My father never raised any objections to any of this mayhem. In fact, he would sometimes regale me with one of his favorite Vietnam stories: Puff the Magic Dragon. You know, the plane with the heavy machine guns that mowed down scores of Vietnamese? According to Dad, there were fields of shredded corpses, punctured many times over by high impact ordinance. I suppose war does that to people, warps their sense of morality and decency. Knocks their priorities into disarray.

But then again, I was never sure if that was a bullshit story or not. Later, when I sat through the John Wayne fiasco The Green Berets, I thought, "Hey, wait a minute. Did my father actually see the mayhem, or did he just crib it from this laughable movie?" Hey, Ronnie Reagan confused real life and the movies all the time, and he was the goddamn President.

. . . but wasn't I talking about Tetsuo, the Iron Man?

Yeah, I guess my point is that part of the thrill of watching Tetsuo was its taboo imagery, its sheer weirdness. The sure knowledge that this was a movie Ma and Pa would never dare to watch, let alone comprehend. And if ever they did try to watch it, they'd just wrinkle their beetling brows, and pout their simian lips and say things like, "I don't get this," and "Who's the main character here?" and "Wouldn't I be happier if I just turned on the TV?" I could watch Tetsuo and feel cool and superior.

I get it, dude, and I wanna go hang out with other people who get it!

Except, I didn't get it. Not completely. Why, exactly, was everybody mutating and hallucinating? Was it magic? Was it psionic powers? Even Akira, a movie often noted for its strangeness and ambiguity, had a rationale for its mass destruction, mutations, and psychic battles that put it more in line with science fiction epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and scores of dystopian sci-fi novels. Was it all a dream-within-a-dream? And what about all the kinky sexual stuff? Was this meant to be a parable about a button down, suit-and-tie kind of guy who discovers his repressed homosexuality? Or was this a movie looking to blast away all our tired notions of sexuality and identity and forge a bold and terrifying new path? Why did it look so weird?

Yeah, the movie just had this jerky, stop motion vibe to it that made it look and feel unlike anything I'd seen up to that point. All of the animations in the movie were done with poverty budget stop motion animation which lent the film a strange look, a handmade feel. Even though the movie was nowhere near as slick as the latest Hollywood special effects extravaganzas, and wouldn't even bear comparisons with Star Wars or Star Trek, it's very rough look actually lent it more credibility. The movie seemed to be about people living in a world filled with junk and waste, and how they merge with this refuse. It made a bizarre kind of sense that the movie would look and feel kind of clunky and rundown. I dunno, it's hard to pin it down in words.

Another aspect of it is its soundtrack by Chu Ishikawa. When I first saw this movie, not only was it unlike anything I had ever seen, it was unlike anything I had ever heard. The music drove the movie with crazed percussion and relentless rhythm that evoked both machine like regularity and precision and out of control mutation and biological chaos. It evoked a musical sense, as though it were just as much a concert as a movie. But not your run of the mill, tapped-out rock'n'roll bullshit. No, this was a new mutation of sound and image and momentum.

Maybe I could compare it to opera. Because the voices of the performers were important, too. Not because they recited soul-searching monologues, or engaged in witty exchanges, but because they screamed incoherently, breathed heavily as they mutilated themselves, and let loose battle cries and threats of destruction against the fabric of the universe itself. Yeah, it was like opera. In opera, you have talented singers doing highly unnatural, intense things with their voices that sound majestic, emotionally charged, yet aloof. Well, maybe I shouldn't compare it to opera, in that case. The performers in Tetsuo work it more like punk rock performers or loonies in the bin. Let's just forget the comparison to opera . . .

I've watched this movie many times since high school. Every time I watch it, it makes more sense. That's not to say that it offers any pat solutions or clear cut character motivations, but that nowadays, when I watch it, I get it. I grok its crazy grammar. Things which just seemed random and opaque the first few times I saw it, are now revealed as having a twisted visual and sonic logic powering them.

For example: the use of grainy video as a sign of the metal fetishist's psychic powers. The metal fetishist seems to be broadcasting his memories and willpower into various machines, and into the mind of Mr. Suit-and-Glasses. It's partly how the fetishist goes about tormenting people, but it's also his way of communicating his past. The fetishist wants Mr. Suit-and-Glasses to know about his rather bizarre trauma at the hands of a belligerent hobo with a metal club. Apparently, when he was a child, the fetishist's head was bashed in with a metal rod by some strange, crazed wanderer. It is possibly implied that this tramp was the fetishist's father, but this could be some sort of hallucination, or fantasy. Maybe the fetishist no longer remembers his own past, and how he became a mutant and so he has manufactured his own memories, or fantasies, about how he came to be. Just because someone has superpowers doesn't mean they're sane or that they recall things accurately.

In any case, the use of distorted video seems to signify the presence of the fetishist's memories, and his psychic powers in action. I never got that the first few times I saw it. Now, I get it . . . I think.

Tomorow Taguchi plays Mr. Suit-and-Glasses. True cinematic auteur Shinya Tsukamoto plays the metal fetishist. Kei Fujiwara plays Mr. Suit-and-Glasses's girlfriend. Taguchi is an actor who would become familiar to me from later Tsukamoto films, and also other Japanese movies, particular the films of Takashi Miike. Taguchi gives a totally committed performance as the anoymous suit-and-glasses dude, jerking his body with abandon during the surrealistic dance sequences, and growling and yelling with appropriate fervor and menace when he begins to mutate. He would reprise this role in Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer.

Kei Fujiwara also gives herself over to the crazed and sexually out of control burlesque woman with the robot snake penis. Fujiwara would later go on to direct bizarre horror movies herself. She also helped shoot this movie, and contributed to the memorable metal mutant designs.

Tsukamoto, as the metal fetishist, is enraged, power-crazed, sexually empowered, and just a bit goofy. The role of the scheming tormentor is one that he would reprise in a number of his later films, where his sinister machinations are seemingly bent on inspiring creative destruction conducive to rebirth within the psyches and souls of his protagonists. These tormentor roles are also possibly commenting on Tsukamoto's role as a perfectionist, totally independent film director. Could it be that he directs his actors to actually mutate? Maybe those aren't special effects at all . . .





Post a Comment