Thursday, September 8, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: TETSUO II: BODY HAMMER (1992)

TETSUO II: BODY HAMMER


Starring
Tomorowo Taguchi as Tomoo Taniguchi
Nobu Kanaoka as Kana
Keinosuke Tomioka as Minori
Shinya Tsukamoto as Yatsu (The Guy)
Hideaki Tezuka as Big Skinhead
Tomoo Asada as Young Skinhead
Torauemon Utazawa as Mad Scientist


Writer/Director/Co-Producer/Art Director/Co-Cinematographer 
Shinya Tsukamoto


Original Music by Chu Ishikawa
Special Effects by Takashi Oda
Cinematography by Fumikazu Oda, Katsunori Yokoyama
Produced by Hiromi Aihara, Hiroshi Koizumi, Fumio Kurokawa, Fuminori Shishido, Nobuo Takeuchi
A Kaijyu Theatre Production 


"I don't want money. Destruction is all I need."

A drunken salaryman staggers through a subterranean underpass somewhere in the bowels of Tokyo. The camera, slasher movie style, seems to stalk him, putting the audience in a first person POV. A hand, the hand of the stalker, makes a gun and pretend shoots the salaryman. The salaryman is irritated by these juvenile shenanigans, but not for long. Two loud bangs, and bullets drill into his torso. He slumps to the ground, one of the comparatively few people in Tokyo who will be classified as a gun homicide that year.

The stalker is revealed in a reverse angle shot as a strange man with a smoking arm attended by an awestruck young man with a shaved head. The stalker seems to be pretending that his arm is some kind of gun. What kind of pretend results in actual bullets and an actual dead body, though, seems to be the question at hand . . .

Tetsuo II: Body Hammer resurrects the themes and imagery of the first Tetsuo movie, but dials back the surrealism a little bit. Or maybe it dials it up to eleven. I guess it depends on how you reckon such things. The first Tetsuo movie was a creation of pure sensation and outrageous imagery with little regard for the usual film grammar and character motivations. There was a story, and there were characters, but these things were subordinate to the overall spectacle of uncontrolled psychic and biological mutations. No motivations or causes are given for the wild transformations in the first movie, and Tetsuo II is comparably mysterious, but the sequel offers more of a science fictional rationale for the mutations. They are seemingly tied to rage, to deadly threats to one's survival, and memories of the past long suppressed.

In the world of Tetsuo II, mutation is also a matter of applied willpower. From the wellsprings of one's rage, one can focus thoughts into mutagenic agents.  An arm and a hand can be morphed into a cannon. Soft flesh becomes layers  of breathing, sweating steel. The most advanced mutants can seemingly manifest concrete as well as steel to further armor up against all enemies. Such thoughts can also be focused into a magnetic field, like Magneto in the X-Men comics, and used defensively and offensively against other metal mutants. Tetsuo II brings an amusing comic book logic to the story which makes it more of a traditional narrative experience than the first movie. Some people I've talked to don't like this aspect of Tetsuo II, and prefer the pure lunacy of the first movie which was totally unbounded by narrative and logic. In fact, it seems that many people were let down by Tetsuo II. Maybe I'm too much of a fan to see this movie in a harsh critical light, but I've always found Tetsuo II to be commendably ambitious. It takes the notions of mutation and creative destruction out of the purely internal, surrealistic mode of the first movie and amplifies them into instruments of mass destruction. In the sequel, it would seem that anybody has the potential to grok the Tetsuo state of mind.

Tomorowo Taguchi is back for another round of mutation and creative destruction as the suit and glasses stiff who transforms into the Iron Man when pushed to the limit by a mysterious tormentor. Shinya Tsukamoto writes, directs, operates the camera when he's not in front of it, art directs, edits, and incarnates a new version of his metal fetishist character from Tetsuo, the Iron Man.

 In the first Tetsuo film, the characters were broad types sketched in by enthusiastic actors. This time around, the characters are given a little bit more in the way of human details and specifics. Taguchi's character is given a name, Tomoo Taniguchi, and a chic apartment in ultramodern Tokyo. He shares it with his wife, Kana, who is played by Nobu Kanaoka. Kanaoka had a cameo as a woman possessed by a piece of biomechanical scrap metal in the first movie. Tomoo and Kana have a young son, Minori, and to all appearances their lives are not the stuff that films are made of, seeing as they live in a comfortable home and even sleep together in an adorable cuddle every night. Tomoo's got a secure job, presumably in some cubicle warren in some skyscraper, and Kana is a devoted mother, preparing breakfast each morning, and encouraging her husband to exercise regularly. Their apartment is a modernist refuge from the biological and technological chaos of the living city. Tomoo makes his way to his office job, wearing a dorky little backpack like a student, on foot and by bullet train and during these trips he is portrayed as having some bizarre anxiety, some sense of being engulfed by the city and its crowds, and yet also passed by, maybe even superseded . . . Tsukamoto shoots Taguchi standing still and staring into the camera as the crowds, backs to the camera, rush by him on the subway platform at high speed. Taguchi, as Tomoo, seems to be standing still, and yet vibrating with repressed energy at the same time. He has a power he wants to unleash, but can't tap into it. He's been too rundown by the workaday grind, by easy living, and he can only sense in an oblique fashion the potential within him.

Tomoo, Kana, and Minori are at the shopping mall one day when they run into a pair of trenchcoated lunatics. One of them zaps Tomoo with some kind of injection gun, and then snatches Minori. Tomoo staggers around in shock and pain, while Kana zips off after the kidnappers. Tomoo finds his way to the mall rooftop where he has the shit knocked out of him by the kidnappers, one of whom sadistically dangles him over the side of the building, while the other one threatens to throw Minori from the roof. But the kidnappers back away at the last moment, leaving Tomoo hanging off the building's ledge like a hero in some old silent film. Kana rescues him at the last moment, pulling him to safety, and they see that Minori has been left behind.

What the fuck was that all about? Were they really kidnappers? Maybe yakuza? Or were they were just particularly sick pranksters? Kana pressures Tomoo to start pumping iron at the gym, maybe to be able to better fend off the rising tide of punks and criminals infesting Tokyo these days. Tomoo can't lift the weights at first, but then he thinks of the leering faces of the thugs who assaulted him and his family, and he finds himself to be stronger than he thought. Next, he hits the workout bike, and his breath capacity and leg muscles have all been augmented by Tomoo's rich inner vein of rage, fear, and paranoia. Is Tomoo on a trajectory to become Tokyo's version of Paul Kersey?

Meanwhile, in the depths of an iron foundry, a small army of cultish skin heads lift gigantic weights crafted from discarded scrap metal and chunks of concrete. Fire and smoke and liquid metal pour from demonic apparatus, and the skinheads are seemingly trying to make their bodies over in the image of junk and machines. The kidnappers are revealed to be agents of this cult, and they hand their strange injection gun over to a portly mad scientist direct from central casting for maintenance. The leader of this cult, played by Shinya Tsukamoto, appears to be the shooter from the opening: a man with a scarred lip who luxuriates in a Jacuzzi filled with molten metal. The kidnappers describe Tomoo as a "mild specimen" and suggest that they have injected him with some kind of substance which will transform him. Tomoo is, perhaps, the subject of some sort of bizarre experiment.

The kidnappers strike again, stealing Minori from Kana and Tomoo's apartment. Tomoo gives chase, ending up on the apartment building's roof. He battles one of the kidnappers, who taunts him by telling him that he threw Minori off the roof. Tomoo goes berserk, and he mutates his right arm into a long, penile cannon straight out of the H.R. Giger calender. Tomoo blasts away . . . and ends up obliterating his own son, whom the kidnapper uses as a human shield. Kana witnesses this accidental homicide, and begins to see her hubby as some kind of monster.

The cult then kidnaps Tomoo, taking him to their lair in the iron foundry, and hooking him up to some sort of bizarre machine that looks like a BDSM version of virtual reality gear. The mad scientist,  at the direction of the cult leader, probes Tomoo's mind, and agitates his memories of the kidnappers and the death of Minori. These memories are like some sort of malignancy, and the mad scientist encourages them to grow and colonize more of Tomoo's consciousness. These cancerous thoughts give Tomoo a jolt of rage, which causes his body to begin to mutate into a living weapon, bristling with bouquets of penile cannons. Tomoo yells and screams in supreme agony, and fires his cannon appendages indiscriminately in the armored testing facility. The cult leader and the mad scientist are satisfied with their new creation. The mad scientist speculates they can use this new process of induced mutation to make piles of money enabling customers to transform themselves and others into screaming, writhing, bio-mechanical weapons batteries.

The cult leader isn't interested in money, though. His stake in the project is highly personal. For he and Tomoo share a secret history that the salaryman has all but forgotten. But the cult leader has forgotten nothing. He seeks not only to mutate Tomoo, but to reawaken his buried memories.

Tomoo's mutations progress into wilder, outsize forms. Eventually, he resembles a kind of lopsided golem fashioned from mud, concrete, and steel. His mutations increase as the cult leader agitates them by dropping hints of their buried past together, and threatening Kana's life. One of the dilemmas that Tomoo faces is that as he mutates and increases his power, he seemingly must struggle to control his destructive tendencies. Sure, he can kill and destroy property at will, but he cannot save any of the people he cares about, and  these frustrations only amplify his rage. Usually, in films about people with superpowers, the powers they gain or are granted are used to increase their agency, and to do good. But in the twisted universe of Tetsuo II, the powers come at great cost. One's body is subjected to out of control transformations, and it is all but impossible to unleash the powers within without causing massive unintentional casualties.

There is also a nasty rust disease which can afflict those who decide to unleash their inner Tetsuo. The cult leader starts using the injector gun on his skinhead disciples, and the war with Tomoo escalates.

Tetsuo II suggests that the mutational process can be guided, maybe even controlled and transformed into a commodity. Such a reproducible mutation process could even be co-opted by extremist political elements. The skinhead cult seems to exist as some kind of fascistic organization, all the members of which have been recruited from boxers, bodybuilders, and other devotees of physical culture. The leader seems to see such people as prime candidates for mutation. His motivations are murky, but he seems to have some aim beyond tormenting Tomoo. The imagery of the skinhead cultists and their willingness to be mutated into living weapons suggests some resurgence of Japan's militaristic past.

There is also a theme running through the movie that the city of Tokyo itself is somehow a repressive force, one that is ambiguous: it is the fruit of Japan's struggle to rebuild itself and thrive after World War II, and is therefore an improvement upon the imperialism which once led the country to total destruction. Everyone is employed, well-fed, and safe. But much of this security has a hidden cost. Society is ruled by powerful corporate interests. The common citizen is expected to practically kill themselves to make good grades in school and land in a plum corporate office job. Those that don't make the grade can look forward to a life of manual labor or maybe something in the service industry. Not everyone fits into such a conformist society. Tsukamoto, as a nonconforming artist, rather perversely suggests that there are those who would choose to obliterate such a society almost as an act of creative expression.

Tetsuo II is that rare fantasy movie that doesn't deal in simplistic conflicts between good and evil. In this reality, comic book superpowers offer their own peculiar kind of bondage. Men of metal suffer from rusty leprosy. Painful memories metastasize into psychic cancer. A sinister tormentor may organize a cult only to get you to remember what you've forgotten. And maybe that tormentor is a psychopathic murderer willing to put your family's lives at stake, but shouldn't any lover of truth be willing to go the distance? Moreover, in the world of Tetsuo, the most dangerous WMD is not a nuke or a biological agent or a bunker busting bomb. It is the rage simmering within the human heart. After all, isn't it that rage, combined with fear, hatred, and distrust, which builds the weapons and wages the wars?


Tetsuo II: Body Hammer trailer:




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