Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is notoriously difficult to summarise. Perhaps more of an experience than narrative film, Tetsuo is an assault of surrealistic images accompanied by a heavily industrial soundtrack which garners as many interpretations as there are viewers. What can be said is that Tetsuo is a dazzling and discomforting work, a perfect example of Cyberpunk at its artistic zenith.
An attempt to summarise the plot: we begin with a man we’ll refer to as ‘The Metal Fetishist’ (played by Tsukamoto himself) making an incision into his leg in order to insert a ribbed metal tube, but looking down later finds it to be infested with maggots. Running out into the street he’s hit by a car driven by ‘The Salary Man’ (Tomoro Taguchi) and his girlfriend. Panicked, they take The Metal Fetishist into their car but rather than delivering him to a hospital they dump him in the forest before having frantic sex over his (they believe dead) body. So far so unpleasant, but shortly after this The Salary Man finds a piece of metal protruding from his cheek while shaving. He thinks nothing of it but this is the beginning of a frightening transformation where the boundaries between flesh and metal will eventually cease to exist.
As mentioned before there are many different ways the film has been interpreted, ranging from an expression of technological paranoia or the dehumanisation of humanity through its increasing contact with technology to criticisms of a conformist and repressed society and the depiction of a man coming to terms with his homosexuality in such a society. However you choose to view the film Tsukamoto’s achievement cannot be denied. To have made something so complex in such an accomplished way on a shoestring budget and almost entirely single-handedly is nothing short of miraculous. The film moves at a breakneck pace with an energy that’s truly punk in spirit which, alongside perfectly timed editing and sound design, creates a relentless sense of claustrophobia.
Tetsuo II: Body Hammer is, by contrast, a more straightforward affair. Not so much a sequel as a another meditation on the same story, Tetsuo II is an urban action thriller in which another salary man (this time with a wife and child) is chosen to be the unwitting test subject of a new metalising weapon by another metal fetishist. On the other hand, Tetsuo II is perhaps in some ways much darker than its predecessor - quite early on a very shocking thing happens in a very matter of fact way; somewhere that not very many other directors would ever go, let alone in such a ordinary way.
Like Tetsuo there are many ways to interpret this film, some of which are similar to the first and others which are in direct opposition to it. The first thing you’ll notice about Tetsuo II is that the artful monochromatic colour palette of Tetsuo has been replaced by full colour (35mm) photography. Though this fits in much more with the aims of Tetsuo II, it’s true that it can’t match up to the artistic stylings of the first film (perhaps an unfair criticism as Tetsuo II is intended to be a more mainstream experience). It also, of course, has the unwelcome effect of showing up faults in the film’s special effects which were perhaps less obvious when filmed in black & white. Similarly, the pounding industrial soundtrack and punkish energy which leant so much to Tetsuo’s atmosphere have been replaced by a more conventional soundtrack and pacing more familiar to a mainstream thriller. Indeed none of these things are inherently ‘bad’, but taken alongside Tetsuo’s more artistic leanings its cinematic brother can’t help but suffer.
As if Tetsuo and Tetsuo II weren’t enough to satisfy your craving for the dark heart of Japanese cyberpunk, Third Window have also included a much improved transfer of early short Tsukamoto film The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy (Denchu Kozo no Boken). Shot on 8mm colour film, unfortunately the requisite materials for an ideal restoration are not available but Third Window have done an amazing job cleaning up the footage for a new DVD transfer. It’s the story of a boy who’s constantly bullied because he has a large metal pole sticking out of his back. One day he’s rescued by a girl and by way of thanks offers to share with her his secret possession - a time machine. However, when he activates it he’s cast, alone, twenty-five years into the future where humanity is under threat from cyberpunk vampires! It might not be in the same league as the other two films offered here but it’s certainly a lot of fun (and even a little bit touching), not to mention an interesting look at some of the director’s earlier work.
In short, Third Window have really gone to town with this release and created a fantastic package for Tsukamoto fans. The transfers on both films are of extremely high quality and the 16mm Tetsuo looks absolutely phenomenal - it’s clearly been produced with a lot of care and attention to ensure the film looks as good as it possibly could look. As mentioned above, the transfer of The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy is hampered by the condition of the available materials, but again what Third Window have produced is far better than anyone could ever have expected and a vast improvement on any other previous viewing experience. Rounding out the extras there’s a very informative conversation with Tsukamoto about the history of the film and his career up to the making of it as well as a short introduction to The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy both of which are much more interesting than such features tend to be.
Both Tetsuo films are landmarks of Japanese, and in particular of cyberpunk, cinema and are essential viewing for anyone with an interest in either area. Quite simply this is a faultless release of two of the most important films to come out of Japan towards the end of the twentieth century, and a definite must buy for all film enthusiasts.