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tetsuo: the iron man

review by rob gonsalves

Shinya Tsukamoto

Kei Fujiwara
Shinya Tsukamoto

Chu Ishikawa

Shinya Tsukamoto


Tomoroh Taguchi (Man)
Kei Fujiwara
Nobu Kanaoka
(Woman in Glasses)
Renji Ishibashi
Naomasa Musaka
Shinya Tsukamoto
(Metals Fetishist)

mpaa rating: None
running time: 67m
japanese release: 1988
video availability: VHS - DVD

q&a home

A heavy-metal nightmare that has invited comparison to Eraserhead -- except that David Lynch's film was obsessively slow, while Shinya Tsukamoto (who serves as his own editor) keeps the scenes short, fast, anguished.

What is it, exactly?

It's a hyperactive Japanese idea of apocalyptic surrealism -- so fractured and jangled that its themes (tormented flesh revolting against encroaching technology) come through only in spurts.

Okay. But what is it about?

For a while, I thought the whole thing was the dream of a car-crash victim in the hospital and hooked up to a life-support system -- there's a recurring image of a car speeding at the camera.

Is there a plot somewhere in there?

Sigh. All right, if I must: A bespectacled, ordinary drone (Tomoroh Taguchi, looking like David Byrne singing "Once in a Lifetime" in Stop Making Sense) shoves an iron rod into his leg and finds his body turning into a tangled riot of hardware. He dukes it out with a couple of similarly appendaged beings, one of whom drops mad pronouncements about world domination. In the end, these two adversaries merge and, presumably, lay waste to the planet.


Tetsuo sometimes seems like an attack on Japan's fascination with technology, sometimes like a parody of the anime in which robots hammer away at each other. It also answers questions like, "What does an Iron Man do for sex?"

So what does an Iron Man do for sex?

The protagonist develops a whirring penis-drill and menaces his girlfriend with it.


Indeed. You don't care whether this is a satire of ironclad misogyny or an example of it; you just don't want to see the woman anywhere near that drill.

Is there an interesting customer review of this, titled "A horror movie about being gay in Japan"?

There is indeed; click here to see it.

Did you enjoy the film?

Up to a point. Shot in black and white (by Tsukamoto and Kei Fujiwara), Tetsuo isn't as disgusting as it would be in color, but it has more than a few images that rival Eraserhead's grossest moments -- and those are the images that Tsukamoto bashes you with again and again. Unquestionably it's a feat of imagination and technique, but an hour of it is more than enough; you're punchy well before the end.

How about the sequel, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer?

It's more abrasive, more incomprehensible, and more conventional in its story. This time, Tomoroh Taguchi's son is kidnapped and he goes ballistic, turning his body into a weapon. There's much bashing around, much screaming and techno-agony; not a lot of readily accessible meaning, though.

Any last thoughts on the films as a whole?

They're like the hallucinations of a college kid who's been up for three days on nothing but coffee and No-Doz. (Weed might sharpen their appeal for some viewers.) Visually overwhelming (or overbearing), but enough, already.

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