Japanese and cult film fans were given real cause for excitement recently, with the announcement by Third Window that they would be releasing Shinya Tsukamoto’s seminal classics “Tetsuo: the Iron Man” and “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” on high definition Blu Ray for the first time. This really came as no small news, as despite being much loved and highly influential, the films, originally released back in 1989 and 1992 respectively, had hitherto only been available on pretty shabby bare bones DVD and VHS editions, a sorry state of affairs indeed. As usual with Third Window, the region 2 double bill comes with some very worthwhile extras, chief amongst which are the inclusion of “The Adventures of Denchu Kozen”, Tsukamoto’s original 45 minute student film, plus an exclusive interview with the director himself, along with the usual trailers and such.
Shot in black and white, “Tetsuo: the Iron Man” starts off in shocking fashion, following a man called the Metal Fetishist (played by Tsukamoto, who very often takes parts in his own films), who lives in a junkyard shack and spends his time cutting his body opening and inserting pieces of metal. The lunatic is hit by an average joe salaryman type (Tomorowo Taguchi, later seen in several other Tsukamoto films, including “Tokyo Fist”, “Bullet Ballet” and others) who is out driving with his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara, who went on to direct the exceptionally gruesome and ponderous Japanese art horrors “Organ” and “ID”), being left for dead in the gutter. For some unexplained reason, the unfortunate salaryman starts finding bits of metal sticking out of his body, and is tortured by visions as he slowly and violently transforms into a half human scrap metal mutant. It becomes clear that Metal Fetishist is somehow behind his torment, and the two eventually clash in a brutal and bizarre battle.
Although “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” sees a returning Tomorowo Taguchi basically playing the same role, the film isn’t a direct sequel as such, and more just a continuation and elaboration of the same themes. This time, the salaryman has a family and a settled life, thrown into disarray when a freakish cult of metal worshippers kidnaps his young son, trying to force him to submit to their will. The meek man is forced to fight back, and in the process finds himself changing into some kind of super powered human-metal weapon.
There really hasn’t been anything quite like the “Tetsuo” films, either before or after, the only point of possible comparison being with David Lynch’s 1977 feature debut “Eraserhead”, though even that arguably doesn’t quite reach the same levels of creative madness. With Tsukamoto serving as writer, director, editor, art director, cinematographer, designer and supporting actor, the cyberpunk films are clearly and uncompromisingly his own vision, being equal parts high premise simplicity and nightmarish abstract surrealism, with layers of fascinating metaphor and psychological depth inviting debate and interpretation. It’s easy to see why the films have been so enduring and influential, having been shot with an amazingly manic yet controlled intensity and featuring hugely enjoyable stop motion effects and corroded, doomful imagery, not to mention plenty of grotesquely imaginative mutations and mad violence, all set to fantastic pounding soundtracks and screeching industrial noise.
Both films absolutely hold up today, and feel every bit as vital and fresh as they did over twenty years ago, more proof of their power. Although as the original, “Tetsuo: the Iron Man” is probably the better of the two, and is arguably the more intense, at just over an hour long being a short, sharp shock to the system, “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” still has a great deal to offer. As a reimagining with a larger budget, the follow-up saw Tsukamoto being able to expand on some of his ideas, and though a touch slower the gorgeously apocalyptic film still packs in plenty of fevered techno-carnage, along with a little more plot, context and psychological undertones.
The great news is that the films both look and sound amazing in HD, a lot of work obviously having gone into the Blu Ray transfer. The image upgrade is quite incredible, highlighting a huge amount of extra detail compared to the earlier DVD releases, a massive benefit in making the most of Tsukamoto’s wonderfully crafted imagery. Even “Tetsuo” looks surprisingly crisp and sharp, no mean feat given that the film was shot on grainy 16mm stock more than two decades ago. Watching the films on Blu Ray is a definite step up, and a far more immersive experience, bringing out the depth and decaying shadows of the first film, and the stunning mix of pale blues and fiery reds of the second.
As a result, this new, vastly improved and near-definitive release of the “Tetsuo” films is about as close to essential as it’s possible to get. The two films are as influential and entertaining as ever, and there really is no excuse for any serious genre fan, or indeed cinema fan in general, not to own this excellent package.
Shinya Tsukamoto (director) / Shinya Tsukamoto (screenplay)
CAST: Shinya Tsukamoto