You want a taste of my sewage pipe?
— Tetsuo (Tomoro Taguchi), Tetsuo: The Iron Man
It’s hard to overstate the stunning effect of Shinya Tsukamoto’s breakout feature. In 1988, Tetsuo: The Iron Man boomed onto movie screens, delivering an extraordinary new vision. Equal parts post-industrial nightmare, post-Godzilla tragedy, and post-cyborg fantasy, the movie is all about limits even as it busts through previous concepts of narrative and human-machine “relations.”
Now available as a Collector’s Edition from Tartan (which only means a sharp print, “notes,” and trailers), Tetsuo from its first moments seduces and appalls. As the camera follows behind a young man, the so-called Metal Fetishist (Tsukamoto), he searches through a junkyard for a “fix,” that is, metal that he will inject directly into his body. The frame is handheld, sometimes too close to read, eventually all too clear, as the shot plunges into the leg flesh and blood spurts up into the lens. Delirious, the camera shows a series of athletes’ pictures, the human machine as harmony, the ideal this injection can’t begin to provide. Lights, blackness, pause. Cut back to wound, maggots, and a panicky run into the street, only to be hit by a mocking sax soundtrack and a car.
Tetsuo is immediately more like a ride than a movie. Story details are hazy: following this “hit-and-run accident,” the driver, Tetsuo (Tomoro Taguchi) transforms from button-down-shirted salaryman to iron man, his shift revealed in a series of horrific gurgles, sweats, and oozes. Shaving, he peers into the mirror to see that his cheek has been penetrated — from the inside out — by a metal pin, protruding, bleeding, alarming. His eyes go wide, and then he’s back to business, at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper, breathing lovey nonsense on the phone with his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara) while recalling heated sex with her.
When Tetsuo tries to maintain his routine, boarding the train for work, he’s suddenly faced with another version of the disease he doesn’t yet know he has, a zombie-metal-monster, a woman contorted and spastic, chasing him deeper and deeper beneath the train station. He runs, clutching his briefcase, but space is not traversable. She persists, screaming, shaking, her metalizing arm a weapon and an emblem. He can’t escape. She’s only him, soon.
Within minutes, then, Tetsuo’s own form is hurtling into transition, writhing, penetrated, and twisted, his body punctured, bloodied, burned, ripped, exploded, spun, split, broken, and contorted until distinctions between metal and flesh are lost. At the same time, the film cuts repeatedly and not so coherently to shots of Metal Fetishist, trapped inside a crumpled car. This following the car running into Tetsuo, who’s “infected” with some kind of metal “virus,” a result of his shooting it into himself in an earlier moment, or the car slam. Metal Fetishist, as he appears in these cutaways, may be an unfixed aftermath of that accident, abandoned by the frightened, sex-enthralled Tetsuo and his girlfriend. A third term who will come to dominate Tetsuo’s self-understanding, Metal Fetishist crouches in the wreck, viewed from peepy angles and remarked in a later flashback — or forward, as time is a mess here — that shows Tetsuo and the girlfriend having sex against a tree, when she notes, “He’s watching us!”
The question is, who’s watching whom? And at what cost, for object or voyeur? And where do you situate yourself, in this onslaught of images? It might also be that Metal Fetishist is dead, as is Tetsuo, and their merging is a subjective state, as well as what seems the obvious assessment of post-industrial consumer culture, where material and self are both amalgamated and irreconcilable. And so Metal Fetishist might be a memory (or metaphor), lurking, spoiling, digging into Tetsuo’s consciousness, and yours. However you might read him, he’s a function of pain, a visceral incarnation of psychic and spiritual self-destruction, an image of contemporary experience turned inside out. He and Tetsuo merge to embody the city, impulsive, implosive, and impossible.
Tetsuo’s own mental-bodily changes parallel or draw from Metal Fetishist’s seeming death. At first, he responds to the nuts and wires popping through his skin with appropriate-seeming disgust and anguish. But the change seems also to affect his sense of — for lack of a better term — manhood. He comes at his girlfriend wet and gooey, in a freaky desirous frenzy. At first, this seems to be a passionate collision of bodies, slamming through the kitchen, moaning and dripping, engaged in a kind of killer sex. Soon, though, the tone soon turns ominously splattery, as Tetsuo’s penis becomes a giant drill, which he wields like a weapon, threatening and then driving through the girlfriend, even as she screams in terror, trying to escape.
It’s porn of a particular sort, less arousing than hideous, but improbably, grimly titillating all the same. At once gorgeously stark (shot in 16mm black-and-white, blown into grainy detail in this digital translation). Though his work has frequently been compared to that of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, also masters of body horror, Tsukamoto is that rare thing — an utter original. The rhythms of this 67-minute film are abrupt and chaotic, grinding, this underlined by Chu Ishikawa’s percussive score. As Tetsuo and Metal Fetishist become each other, their connection at once erotic, empowering, and vile. As Iron Man comes to understand himself as product, irrevocable and apocalyptic, he also learns that his “horrible body” is forever.