Before addressing Shinya Tsukamoto’s fierce cyberpunk horror Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) in detail, a warning. Despite its family-friendly title, parents should take great care not to confuse this modern Japanese classic with the similarly titled Marvel superhero film. Almost every scene of Tsukamoto’s 67-minute lunacy involves graphic depravity completely unsuitable for children. And more power to it for that.
Tsukamoto wastes few seconds of his greyhound-lean runtime before showing us the ‘metal fetishist’ (played by Tsukamoto himself) inserting lengthy iron rods of substantial girth into his body. When maggots congregate around the noxious wounds, he goes insane and sprints from his grim industrial hovel along a desolate road, where he’s run over by the ‘salaryman’ (Tomoro Taguchi) out driving with his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). The pair hide the corpse, but the salaryman is soon tormented by demented dreams and, far more seriously, a gradual metamorphosis into a living heap of scrap metal.
Completely bonkers and bizarrely sexual, Tetsuo is an essential watch. It remains a cult film that keeps kicking and screaming down the years, with a fan base that includes Quentin Tarantino.
Here are five reasons why you need to see it.
1. Its unforgettable body-horror
There was a surfeit of body horror in live-action western cinema before Tetsuo. Mangled bodies and metal-flesh hybrids featured in hits like The Terminator (1984) and Robocop (1987), David Lynch’s fantastic, industrial nightmares haunted Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980), and David Cronenberg’s grisly orifice explorations filled Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977) and Videodrome (1983).
Either subconsciously or overtly, Tsukamoto cribs from these sources. He’s on record as saying he admires and respects both Lynch and Cronenberg. Tetsuo also echoes some of the best Japanese animation of the time. The process in which salaryman’s body is overtaken is reminiscent of one of the final scenes in Akira (1988), at least.
Many of these titles feature ghastly transformations where the results are neither completely human nor inhuman. Alongside such august company, like a jagged prod into soft flesh, Tetsuo’s grotesque parade of metallic monstrosity fits right in.
2. Its terrifying soundtrack
From phallic power drills to snaking strap-on metal dildos, what’s on screen borders on the extreme and experimental, and it’s matched by a delirious and frightening score. Chu Ishikawa’s clattering metal percussion and unrelenting terror synths border on unlistenable at times. Ultimately, the aural attack is bracing, and there’s nothing more offensive or sinister than German digital hardcore industrial bands such as Atari Teenage Riot, while some of the beats could pass for drums heard in True Faith-era New Order.
3. Its unlikely accessibility
It might seem counterintuitive to suggest a film that’s so abrasive to watch and listen to could actually be in any way described as accessible, but it is. Aside from the friendly running time that’s barely longer than an episode of a Netflix drama, the film is light on plot complexities and sparse on dialogue, two factors that make it easy to pick up for a global and non-native-speaking audience. Viewers may want to read allegorical messages into the bare bones narrative, as many did around body-horror films when the AIDS epidemic became a global story in the 1980s, but Tetsuo just works as entertainment with no deeper reading required.
4. Its furious visual style
Putting aside questions of outrageous content, Tsukamoto’s feature always looks the part. As he told Dazed in 2015: “In Tetsuo, I really wanted to show Tokyo as an urban jungle.”
The Japanese capital does feel wild in the film, seemingly comprised of backstreets, angry industrial workshops and places to bury bodies. There’s no real depiction of the gleaming high-rise Tokyo of popular imagination. Even if there was, it might be difficult to spot specifics, given how frantically fast-paced much of the film is. Confrontation and violence erupt at breakneck speed and the salaryman mutates quickly (there’s even some sprawling stop motion).
The film rushes at the viewer as an assault on the senses. Aside from the many 90s music video directors it clearly influenced, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) feels similar, in part because both films are modern black-and-white classics with a sense of twisted dread flowing through them.
5. It was all done on a tiny budget
Shot on 16mm, the film was a fiscal step up from Tsukamoto’s previous Super 8 efforts but was still made on a shoestring of a shoestring. The bulk of the filming took place over 18 months at Fujiwara’s apartment, with most of the cast and crew living on set. Fujiwara split the actual filming with Tsukamoto, while as Tom Mes reports in his book, Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, eventually the crew were so fed up with the writer-director they abandoned the shoot.
Watch Mark Kermode discuss Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Towards the end of production, Taguchi – who wisely lived away from the set and so had some breathing space – had to light scenes himself. One can argue whether the tensions of familiarity, multi-tasking and proximity improved the film, but what can’t be questioned is what a fine advert the film is for the tenacity and ingenuity of DIY filmmaking. If nothing else, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is an inspirational work to show young filmmakers wondering how they can make great cinema with limited resources.