I was digging out some old files from my external hard drive yesterday and I found an essay I had written on Tetsuo on my second year of uni. Since it is quite an interesting subject to review I decided to post part of my essay here.I suggest that you don’t read it before you have watched the film, it contains quite a lot of spoilers.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man was released in 1988. It was the film that established Tsukamoto as one of Japan’s most promising and unconventional contemporary filmmakers. It is not a film that you can enjoy with your family or recommend to friends- believe me I tried and it never ended well. Naturally, it ended up obtaining a near mythical status amongst the cult film circles.
The plot of the film revolves around a character simply named ‘salaryman’ who suddenly begins witnessing bizarre transformations on his body. The metamorphosis is a gradual process through which the protagonist eventually evolves into a creature that is mostly comprised of metallic parts. In addition he is being stalked by another semi-metallic entity, a man called ‘metal fetishist’ that he severely wounded during a hit and run accident which occurred early in the film. As a consequence of these bodily and mental alterations the salaryman ends up being the one responsible for his girlfriend’s gruesome murder. The metal fetishist then reveals himself as an antagonist and engages the salaryman in combat. Towards the end of the film the two of them can be seen fused into a grotesque metallic being: They both seem to be content with their new form and after declaring war on humanity they embark on their joint quest to ‘turn the world into metal’.
The main character is a man wearing a business suit, a tie and glasses. His attire is reminiscent of that of a typical, nameless company clerk. This is later confirmed at the end credits, where the character is referred to as ‘the salary man’. The first indication of human contact in the film is realised through the aid of a machine: the salaryman’s car. The first piece of dialogue is carried out via telephone. Throughout the rest of the film there is no further display of interaction between two humans except in flashback scenes. The woman in the subway that appears early in the film chooses to distance herself from the salaryman when he sits down close to her. It is only after her transformation has begun that she approaches him, and then proceeds to attack him. When the salaryman meets his girlfriend in person, he is already partially metallized. Within the urban jungle portrayed in the film human relationships seem to be scarce. Technological advance has alienated people to the point where they interact more frequently with machines than with other human beings.
While human relationships appear to be decadent in Tetsuo, fantasies and sexual perversions seem to thrive and are explored to a great extent. Fetishism is a recurrent theme throughout the movie: The metal fetishist, as the name suggests is clearly obsessed with metallic objects. His fixation is so intense that it drives him to insert a rusted piece of metal into his gaping thigh in a socking scene early in the film. His pursuit of the mutated protagonist is not only fuelled by his desire to have revenge but also by his fascination of him and his new, metallic body. Their relationship, as well as the one between the salaryman and his girlfriend, is evidently of sadomasochistic nature.
According to Justin Bowyer’s analysis, the salaryman suffers from a feeling of sexual insecurity, one related to his ‘feminisation at the hands of Japanese technocracy and corporatism’ (2004:134).Sine his lifestyle undermines his sexuality to such an extent , he is obligated to seek a stimulus in order to regain his confidence. The fetish in its Freudian sense, according to Lesley A. Hall, is supposed to represent the penis and to protect against the fear of castration. In the case of Tetsuo, as soon as the salaryman finds himself equipped with a mechanic drill instead of a penis, his insecurity is replaced with sexual aggression and he grinds his girlfriend to death. Eventually, the only romantic relationship maintained is the one between man and machine, as the mutated salaryman and the fetishist are fused into an enormous metallic construction of phallic shape.
Tetsuo might seem like a cautionary tale at first; Daniel Dinello argues that science fiction always portrays the future from a bleak, technophobic perspective. ‘Like a virus, technology autonomously insinuates itself into human life and, to ensure its survival and dominance, malignantly manipulates the minds and behaviour of humans’ (2005:2). Therefore technology is presented as some kind of parasitic organism, one that causes alterations to its host. Dinello characterises Tetsuo as ‘a brutal horror story about the infection of cyborgization’ (2005, 133) and suggests that the film is an allegory about AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which was first recognized in 1981.
Justin Bowyer (2004:141) speculates that the metamorphosis that occurs in Tetsuo mirrors the evolution of the human species. Thus the mutation of the protagonist into a metal being is a sign of him evolving into a form that enables him to face the demands of the modern society. Takayuki Tatsumi, professor at Keio University, draws comparisons between the unorthodox ‘cyborgs’ of Tetsuo and the fictional tribe of the ‘Japanese Apache’ that fist appear in Japanese literature in Ken Kaiko’s Nippon Sanmon Opera (1959). One of the literary representations of the Japanese Apache is that of metal-eating mutants that eventually rebel against the state. In a similar manner, Tsukamoto’s mutants rise against the contemporary global community and its institutions. It seems that technological advance in Tetsuo is after all both a blessing and a curse as it incorporates the ideas of deconstruction, evolution and revolution.
As the salaryman’s body disintegrates he transforms into a higher entity reminiscent of a Nietzschean ‘superman’, ‘the ideal superior man of the future who could rise above conventional Christian morality to create and impose his own values’. The metal fetishist mentions the creation of a new world before joining forces with the salaryman to destroy the old one. A similar approach to the effects of technological advance can be seen in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome(1983), at the end of which the character declares ‘long live the new flesh’ before abandoning his old one to become a purely electronic being. The ending sequences in both films signify the end of an era for humankind and the beginning of a new one.
Did I mention that Tsukamoto appears in the film as the Metal Fetishist? Kei Fujiwara who plays the part of the Salaryman’s girlfriend is also a director and a writer and her style seems quite close to Tsukamoto’s. If you enjoyed this film ( you clearly have problems not unlike my own) be aware that it was followed by two more films : Tetsuo II: Body Hammer and Tetsuo: The Bullet man.
- Bowyer, Justin. (2004). The Cinema of Japan and Korea. London: Wallflower Press
- Butler, Andrew. (2000). Cyberpunk. Great Britain: Pocket Essentials.
Available at: UCA library/digital library/e-books http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ucreative/home.action
- Dinello, Daniel. (2005). Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. U.S.A: University of Texas Press. Available at: UCA library/digital library/e-books http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ucreative/home.action
- Akira. (1988). Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Japan.
- Blade Runner. (1982). Directed by Ridley Scott. U.S.A.
- Burst City. (1982). Directed by Sogo Ishii. Japan.
- Crazy Thunder Road. (1980). Directed by Sogo Ishii. Japan.
- Eraserhead. (1977). Directed by David Lynch. U.S.A.
- Terminator (The). (1984). Directed by Ridley Scott. U.S.A
- Tetsuo: The Iron Man. (1988). Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. Japan.
- Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. (1992). Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. Japan.
- Videodrome. (1983). Directed by David Cronenberg. Canada.
Midnight Eye. (2001). Tetsuo: The Iron Man by Tom Mes. [Online]. Available at http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/tetsuoim.shtml
Takayuki Tatsumi. (1996). The Japanese Journal of American Studies. [Online]. No 7. Full Metal Apache Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo Diptych: The Impact of American Narratives upon the Japanese Representation of Cyborgian Identity. Available at http://wwwsoc.nii.ac.jp/jaas/periodicals/JJAS/PDF/1996/No.07-025.pdf