[21 January 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s rare when you can become the benchmark for a certain style of media. Rarer still is the artist who not only excels within the format’s framework, but can claim ownership and origin as well. Such is the case with Japanese auteur Shinya Tsukamoto. Known for his often brutal (it brilliant) Tetsuo films, he’s considered the founding father of the Eastern interpretation of cyberpunk - a sci-fi subgenre which examines the deterioration and redefinition of humanity via technology. Unlike the Western view, which focuses on computers dominating our lives, Tsukamoto is more interested in the industrial and the dark. His films are often veiled allegories involving man’s inability to combat and control his own emotions. Said feelings usually result in a transformation into something dark, disturbing…and destructive.
Such is the case with the latest offering in this series, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man. Built around the devastation of a familial tragedy and loaded with the lynchpin techniques (rapid editing, shaky-cam, visual montage mishmashes) that made the director an international star, this third installment suffers from a lack of real inspiration. While it’s still a shocking denouncement of society, science playing God, and the simmering rage inside us all, Tsukamoto plays it far too safe. Instead of the bugnut brilliance of his first installment, he continues a mangled mythos (started with the second film, Body Hammer) that does his otherwise startling and typically visionary work a slight disservice.
Anthony works in Tokyo and is married to beautiful Japanese woman. He has a small son which he dotes on endlessly. While on their way home one day, the boy is struck by a car and killed. Anthony becomes enraged by this horrid hit and run event and suddenly, without warning, begins to mutate. He grows a metallic face. Gun barrels burrow out of his skin while his blood begins to bubble and burst like crude oil. When he seeks the help of his doctor father, he learns a horrible truth - Anthony’s mother was part of the Tetsuo Project, an attempt to meld human DNA with technology in order to forward science. Instead, it ended up creating a walking weapon. With a mysterious man chasing him, hiring hitmen to kill him once and for all, Anthony tries to make sense of things. When that doesn’t work, it’s time to confront the truth - and his powers - once and for all.
After the undeniably insane mastery of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and the legitimate letdown of Tetsuo: Body Hammer, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man continues a dangerous downward trend for Tsukamoto. While never dull or derivative, the desire to tell a story, to make sense of his otherwise surreal designs, undermines his best instincts. The reason his first film remains his most memorable is because of the outward lack of logic. While the world inside the fetish/sex/splatter scene makes a little sense, it fails to bond with us individually. By working up his own unique connections and explanations, the Tetsuo universe still strives for a sense of clarity. They are bizarre and insular, but appear to be rooted in their strange cinematic reality.
Once a plot gets pushed to the fore, however, things grow too confused. We never get a real handle on why Anthony is the way he is (though there are numerous attempts at explanations and flashback origins). We get the sledgehammer metaphor about pain and anger changing someone, but as for the rest of the rationales, The Bullet Man comes up short. The transition to English is also unsettling. Having the characters respond in a Western manner to what are clearly Eastern obsessions is a bit too culturally confused. When Anthony’s wife or nemesis show up, the film makes sense. The America actors only complicate matters.
This doesn’t mean that Tsukamoto has lost his visual edge. There are several sequences in The Bullet Man that blows us away with their mangled mayhem. One comes toward the beginning, when the car wreck exposes a clear mechanical connection between father and son. There is also an underground lab that looks like a lost scene from a Nine Inch Nails video. We get a couple of unusual asides, mash-ups of various images that perplex as much as they please. Perhaps the most impressive moment, however, comes at the end, when a fully formed Anthony unleashes his potential upon his opponent, the entire city of Tokyo suddenly feeling the neo-nuclear trauma of his ire. In these optically overwhelming instances, The Bullet Man succeeds. Once the subplots start kicking in, however, we grow tired.
That’s because we honestly expect more from Tsukamoto. Anyone whose followed his career and seen the other films in his creative canon (Hiruko The Goblin, Tokyo Fist, Nightmare Detective) know he is capable of compelling “normalcy”. But we don’t want the standard stereotypes when it comes to Tetsuo. We want boundary breaking craziness, the kind of senselessness that eventually sneaks up and startles you with its invention. It’s hard to imagine matching something as influential and instrumental as Tetsuo: The Iron Man, but Tsukamoto keeps hinting that he’s quite capable of such originality. Why he chooses to pull back and play “nice”, so to speak, remains an intriguing if aggravating aesthetic question.
Fans of the filmmaker will probably have mixed emotions about this latest look into the revisionist real of Tetsuo. While not a flop by any far stretch of the imagination, it does demand a kind of critical “pass” in order to survive close scrutiny. For his part, Shinya Tsukamoto remains an enigmatic voice in an arena which he more or less owns outright. Cyberpunk, for the most part, begins and end with Tetsuo. Seeing where the filmmaker has gone in the two decades since the original is a treat. It’s too bad then that Tsukamoto does make more of it. Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is enjoyable and entertaining. This latest vision is just no longer envelope or button pushing.