Tetsuo begins with one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of cinema. An unnamed man (Shinya Tsukamoto) sits at the center of a mass of jumbled wires and twisted machinery. He struggles, his breath a hoarse, uneven rasp that carries a strong implication of insanity. Although the camera never really stops moving, darting manically to and fro, we see clearly what he is doing: cutting open the flesh of his thigh and inserting a half-inch thick metal rod. His wound erupts with teaming maggots, the very symbol of decaying flesh.
It’s not that this is the goriest thing I’ve ever seen. AlthoughTetsuo is gruesome throughout, it can’t really compare with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Dead Alive. But Tetsuo achieves an unusual solidity. Its first scene is at once random and literal: before you’ve had time to acclimate yourself to any themes and motifs, before you have any context, you’ve already been assaulted.
This assault takes several forms. For one, Tetsuo appears to American eyes as something alien, the product of a culture dramatically removed from our own. Its existential dread is predicated on the notion that individualism is superfluous, that strictures and symbols of society, represented here by technology, are designed to curtail autonomy. The endless parade of willfully anonymous “office men” working 12-14 hour days in rigorously hierarchical business environments is seen as the norm, and any deviation from this norm is seen as dangerous iconoclasm. Compare this to America, which may hypocritically encourage conformity, but which still, to a great degree, celebrates the ultimate authority of individual desires to shape and fulfill destiny.
The notion of individual pique is certainly considered a poisonous disruption in the life of metamorphosing man (Tomoro Taguchi) — his flaccid, guilty life is given as an example of institutional conformity at its most noxious. And though it’s easy to assume he’s the titular “Iron Man,” he is never named. No one is. Tetsuo is just one of Japan’s multitude of hard-working, lower middle class office dwellers, an anonymous drone living in a crappy apartment in what seems to be the rough side of town. But he’s not quite as “normal” as he appears.
Through an intricate series of jarring flashbacks, we get the gist of the very ragged narrative: he hit the first scene’s metal fetishist with his car. Thinking him dead, Tetsuo and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara) drag the body out to the countryside to dispose of it and then proceed to have passionate sex while the not-quite-dead fetishist watches. Somehow — none of this is explained — the fetishist passes a technological virus on to the driver, who transforms into a creature of twisted, melting metal.
Tetsuo’s transformation appears to be metaphorical punishment for his moral transgressions. But this obvious interpretation is mitigated by the fact that Tetsuo’s painful conversion also frees his id from any semblance of restraint. The notorious power-drill penis is a literal translation of very violent sexual urges. Throughout his transformation, he engages in all kinds of offensive behavior, including a grisly murder using that same mechanical penis, as well as brutally sadomasochistic sex with a strange technological demoness with a large and extremely aggressive tentacle dildo.
Watching Tetsuo is a visceral, often confusing experience. Every facet seems designed to shock the audience — the grainy black & white film stock, shaky camera held at odd angles, rapid-fire editing, as well as ritual and repetitive physical mutilation. By the time Tetsuo has completed his transformation and confronts the fetishist, he has transcended all mores. Whereas the original Tetsuo was a wreck of nervous guilt over his perceived transgressions, the Tetsuo who ends the film is beyond morality, a monster in both form and function.
Here Tetsuo departs completely from western horror, which typically closes with the defeat of the monster. Tsukamoto’s film merges its two technological mutants merged into one great, ambisexual juggernaut. The last scene features the former antagonists joined together to conquer the world and remake it in their twisted image. The meaning here is inescapable: Tetsuo’s violent rebirth is a necessary reaction to repression. The blood and murder and rape amount to a revolution.
Considering Japan’s continuing discomfort with the idea of homosexuality*, Tetsuo might seem a rallying cry for a nascent national queer community. Unfortunately, Tartan’s “Collectors Edition” DVD falls woefully short in explaining context. Though the film is presented in pristine form, the dearth of additional features — no commentary track or interviews — leaves lay western viewers without context.
Still, Tetsuo is one of those rare movies that sticks with you long after the credits roll. This is horror as a transformative impulse — confrontation and rapprochement with the strange — instead of the same patterns of cathartic encounter and subsequent victorious repulsion. Social order is not restored by the end of the movie, and that is why Tetsuo remains as deliciously dangerous today as it was in 1988.
* To elaborate, homosexuality has been considered a social deficiency in Japan since the late 1800s. Previously, homosexuality was an accepted, even celebrated, tradition — the common practice of samurais taking young boys as both lovers and apprentices was termed wakashu-do — but Western industrialism and Christian morality influenced many Japanese not only to castigate homosexuality but to banish it almost entirely from their history.