Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988) Movie Review

Tetsuo is a 1-hour film in black and white, and tells the story of an unnamed salaryman (Japanese businessman, played by Tomoro Taguchi), who accidentally runs over a jogger with his car. The man goes about his life with his girlfriend, content to forget about the incident, until strange things begin occurring to him. For one, a woman in the subway station attacks him with a metal hand, and he discovers that his feet have turned into jet-propelled rockets! What’s worst, metal parts start showing up on the man’s body, and a giant spinning metal drill has replaced his penis! What the heck is going on here…?

Tetsuo is more avant-garde then straight narrative storytelling. Writer/director Shinya Tsukamoto, along with cinematographer Kei Fujiwara, throws every single camera trick they can think of at us using a cheap 16mm film camera that, at various times, gets pretty dirty because strands of hair keeps showing up in the camera’s gate — said strands of hair also appearing onscreen in corners as a result.

Tetsuo is a smorgasbord of images, some insane, others just weird. At just over an hour, the film crams as much visuals into the frame as possible. There are so many cuts and images that another editor could have stretched the film’s 1-hour running length into a 90-minute film, or perhaps a 2-hour film. Shinya Tsukamoto is content with the 1-hour frame, and the film quite literally flies by with its shocking imagery, all filmed in dark and shadowy black and white.

There’s really not much acting to talk about in Tetsuo, since the actors are mainly there to be propped in this shape, twisted into that pose, and plastered with enough prosthetics to bankrupt an effects company. The director himself shows up in a part called “Metals Fetishists”, although I couldn’t tell you what that meant or which character he played. The closest thing Tetsuo can be compared to is Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, an American indie film that uses both black and white shadowy cinematography as well as a pulse-pounding techno soundtrack to enhance the mood. With Tetsuo having been made in 1988, and coming a decade before Pi, it would be interesting to see if Aronofsky was in fact influenced by Tsukamoto.

Tetsuo is a treat for the eyes and ears. As mentioned, the movie’s soundtrack is singular and simple, but very effective, showing up at always the right times to drive home the film’s “insane vibe”. The visuals are quite extraordinary given the limited budget, and Tsukamoto films much of the “action scenes” using stop-motion, which is a cheaper (and back then, probably the only) way to achieve “morphing” scenes. Taken into context within the odd world of Tetsuo, the extensive use of stop-motion is at home and doesn’t jar at all, as it could have been.

I also mentioned that the movie resembles a “tentacle rape anime,” a genre of Japanimation that involves beastly demons or aliens using tentacles (re: penises) from all orifices of their body to literally rape their victims (most of which are invariably young school girls in schoolgirl outfits). Tetsuo sometimes represents a live-action version of that genre, and we are treated (or offended by, depending on your point of view) to a scene of a “tentacle” rape of the male lead, only by a woman with a slithering metal conduit jutting out from her crotch area. In another scene, the man’s unnamed girlfriend decides her boyfriend’s metal drill for a penis might not be so bad after all, so gives it a shot. (No, I am not making that last one up.)

Tetsuo is quite an inspired film, although it does look like a student film at times, most notably the hair-in-camera-gate that is the staple of many novice and amateur filmmakers using 16mm equipment for the first time. The movie is coherent, although it does meander off into a silly (and rather lengthy) conclusion involving a confrontation between the man and the jogger he killed, who has come back from the grave to do battle.

What? Exactly.

Shinya Tsukamoto (director) / Shinya Tsukamoto (screenplay)
CAST: Shinya Tsukamoto

Buy Tetsuo on DVD