Saturday, January 11, 2014

#173: Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989)

If you'll forgive the personal reminiscence, I had a Thursday night routine for the legal drinking age years of my undergraduate days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wow, I used a lot of prepositions in that last sentence. My fellow record store employees and I would meet up at a downtown bar for live karaoke with local bar-band legends Shithook. (I occasionally tortured people with off-key renditions of Cheap Trick's "Surrender," but I redeemed myself somewhat by sitting in on drums when their drummer failed to show up one night. There's also the "We Are the World" incident, but I'll save that story for later.) As often happens when cheap pitchers of beer are involved, I usually left the bar in a much sorrier state than I entered it. Fortunately, sitting across the street was a fine representative of a regional burrito franchise that offered "burritos as big as your head." One of those delicious gutbombs, and you were halfway to sober again.
One particular Thursday night, I overindulged beyond my usual capacity and shoved the gigantic burrito into my then-skinny frame to try to get back to halfway normal. It didn't work. It just sat in my stomach, taunting me. I knew if I had so much as two gulps of an adult beverage, I would deliver the burrito, all the evening's drinks, and maybe a few internal organs onto the pavement. The undergrad chopped salad. (There's nothing more boring than someone bragging about how drunk they got in the old days, but I'm telling you this because it has some bearing on my first impressions of this film.) It was at this vulnerable point in the evening that my friend Jeremy suggested my roommate and I saunter over to his nearby apartment for a screening of a film he thought we would love. I did what anyone who should have been home in bed with a glass of water and two aspirins would have done and readily agreed. We staggered over to his place, and he plugged in a VHS of Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
Now, any of you who have seen this film know you should probably watch it with a spring in your step. I was a half-step from nausea, dangerously close to Vomit Mountain, and unable to sit up straight in my chair, and it was in this state that I initially experienced the full-body assault that is Shinya Tsukamoto's avant-garde cyberpunk gonzo freakout. I don't recommend this to anyone, but it left a massive impression. I felt like I was experiencing everything the characters experienced, and though I knew I would have loved what I was seeing in a healthier state, I felt like I was being pummeled by an army of mutating half-metal/half-men. I had to call it quits halfway through and somehow made it home without incident. A week later, I rented it on a day when I had nothing in my system but water and, possibly, a couple fast-food tacos. It was a much more comfortable situation, but I still felt twinges of nausea and discombobulation. I've seen it twice since then, and I always get a mild flashback to that first viewing. Ladies and gentlemen, that night was my Vietnam.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a real oddity, a late-1980s film that looks ahead to the 1990s and beyond while referencing much of the cinematic and manga past. It's a relentless blend of 80 years of Japanese (and American and Canadian and French and et cetera) counterculture and pop culture, a pop art nightmare that has one of the most frenetic and assaultive paces I've experienced short of recent CGI monstrosities (though the pace here comes with a point of view and an actual aesthetic). Tsukamoto wisely wraps things up just past the one-hour mark, right about the time the pace would render most viewers catatonic.
He captures some incredible images that call to mind past cinematic, musical, and literary touchstones without specifically quoting them. I was reminded, in fleeting glimpses, of Videodrome, Alien, Les Vampires, Suspiria, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Akira, Onibaba, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Ministry's music videos, industrial music in general, William Gibson's novels, the structure and form of manga in general, John Zorn's work with Naked City, Boredoms (especially Pop Tatari), MTV's advertisements, J.G. Ballard, the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the more extreme stylistic end of avant-garde/non-narrative cinema, and probably plenty of Japanese-specific references I don't have the background to see. These moments occur as flickers of recognition, not extensive quotes, and most may not even be intentional. This film is a kind of cyberpunk Rorschach test, if the images were presented to you for only half a second.
Any plot synopsis is bound to be inadequate, but I'll give it a brief try. A man credited as Metal Fetishist cuts himself open and inserts scrap metal into his body, causing him to mutate into a part-human, part-metal being. A couple, credited as Man and Woman, strike the Metal Fetishist with their car. They think he's dead, but he's not. He causes the Man to mutate into a metal being, orchestrating the transformation. That's as much as I'm willing to tell you if you haven't seen it.
Tetsuo is an intense and stylistically daring film. It's black and white, filmed mostly with hand-held cameras, and most shots last less than a second. You may have read many screeds of mine where I complain about the quick-cut aesthetic and spatial disorientation of current mainstream films, but in the hands of a real artist with a personal style, any technique can be effective and memorable. Tsukamoto is one of those filmmakers who can get away with it. The sound design of the film is impressive as well, layered with scraping metal, grunts, moans, screams, artificial pings and poings, pounding industrial music, cool jazz, and very little dialogue. It's an hour of exciting, affectionate punches to the head. I enjoyed the first half more than the second, mostly because of pacing fatigue, but there are many pleasures throughout. Tetsuo is something else.

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