Judge Joel Pearce was dissapointed to learn this is a cyber-horror freakout, not a documentary about a Black Sabbath tribute band from Japan.
"We can make the world rust until it crumbles into the cosmos."—The Fetishist
A bizarre low-budget offering from Japan, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is what you might expect if Sam Raimi were to direct one of H.R. Giger's nightmares on a shoestring budget. The result isn't for everyone, but fans will be very impressed by this new transfer from Tartan Films.
Facts of the Case
Since Tetsuo: The Iron Man is more like an extended nightmare/music video than narrative fiction, I see little point in trying to explain the story. I have to appease my editor, though, so here goes…A metal fetishist (director Shinya Tsukamoto) does some nasty self-surgery on his own leg, and is then run over by a salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi, Dead or Alive). Shortly afterwards, the salaryman starts to have terrible nightmares and gradually starts to transform into a metal being. The two men hurtle towards a violent confrontation as their new metal bodies become more powerful.
Sharing our dreams is a strange human compulsion. After all, they rarely make much sense to anyone else, and that person isn't able to share the vivid impact of the visuals. The stories of these dreams are usually severely disjointed, with shifts in plot that can only be handled by "and then suddenly" statements, such as: "and then suddenly I was riding this green horse through my office, and my boss was throwing spears at me." Or, in Tetsuo: The Iron Man's case: "and then suddenly my penis turned into this enormous drill." Nightmare films make a bit more sense, though, because we get to experience Shinya Tsukamoto's nightmare with him.
If it is a nightmare. The most disturbing element of Tetsuo: The Iron Man is the way it shifts from biomechanical horror to twisted fantasy. The fetishist's vision for the future is a chilling one, but both characters seem to embrace this destiny. After all, the salaryman's transformation comes with both horror and power. We live in a society that is unhappy with our own biological capabilities. While I don't want to read Tetsuo: The Iron Man as a study of body art, piercing and other physical modifications, these changes look like an extrapolation of what is often being done by people now. Has our love of machines and computers become so strong that we want to connect with them on a physical level?
In the end, though, I think it's stupid to try to figure out some greater meaning behind Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It is not an intellectually gratifying experience, and isn't even a movie that can be watched with the head. It is a visceral, sensual experience, one that often threatens to burst off the screen. At times, it's too much to take in all at once, overloading your eyes and ears. Fortunately, it only runs a bit over an hour, and any more than that would be far too much for most viewers. The overload is acceptable, though, because it is bold and kinetic enough to replace the cohesive story that we have come to expect in film. Although it shows the influence of filmmakers David Cronenberg and David Lynch, as well as cyberpunk author William Gibson, Tetsuo: The Iron Man stands completely on its own as a grotesque, moving cyber-painting.
The visuals of Tetsuo: The Iron Man are as stunning as they are audacious. Some directors have a knack for creating incredible spaces without spending any money. Shinya Tsukamoto is one of these directors. Every bolt, every broken pipe, every body part become part of this strange, post-human landscape. As a result, it's not always clear exactly what is on the screen, but it all fits together into the jumbled mess of bits and pieces. The black-and-white cinematography is remarkable, with some of the most impressive use of light and shadow that I have ever seen.
Tartan has put together a great transfer for their new special edition, featuring remastered video and new surround tracks. The video image is as sharp and clear as the 16mm print will ever look, featuring good black levels and strong detail. It is fuzzy at times, of course, but Tartan has done the best it could. The sound is even better, with the original dual mono track for purists and crisp, raging DTS and Dolby 5.1 tracks for the rest of us. The audio experience is just as overwhelming as the visuals, and these tracks deliver. Where the disc falls short is in the special features. Beyond a brief text biography of Shinya Tsukamoto, all that has been included is a collection of trailers for his other films, including the upcoming Vital. This film begs for context, with interviews with Tsukamoto or experts in cyberpunk, or maybe a nice commentary track. This is a fine presentation of the film, but that's all you get.
Fans of Tetsuo and cyberpunk in general will be happy with this new DVD release, but shouldn't expect to get much extra out of the disc. For others, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a pretty hard sell. If you have a deep love for intense visuals and don't need films to make much sense, it's probably worth checking out. Serious fans of Cronenberg and Lynch will probably go crazy over this film, but most people will simply wonder what the fuss is about, after grabbing an Advil half-way through.
Though it isn't on the bill for my next movie party, Tetsuo: The Iron Man delivers exactly what it promises: an hour-long biomechanical nightmare sequence. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
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