The genius of the original Tetsuo: The Iron Man was that it explained nothing. The problem with Tetsuo II: Body Hammer is that it explains everything. To use a phrase I've borrowed before, it cuts open the drum to see what makes it go bang. But that doesn't make it an entirely bad film, just not as successful a one as its predecessor. It also functions as a key step in Shinya Tsukamoto's evolution as a filmmaker, away from purely instinctual storytelling and towards the more elegant fusion of instinct and intellect that has since become his hallmark. A stumbling step, but a step all the same.
The shape of rage
Body Hammer opens with familiar faces: Tomoroh Taguchi, the hapless salaryman of before, is once again in a similar role, although here he's happily married (his wife is played by Kei Fujiwara, also his girlfriend in the previous film) and with a young son. He lives with them in an apartment that's as urbane and new-wave as his previous film's digs were grotty and depressing. The only downside in his life is a hole in his memory that's the size of his childhood, but maybe it's best if he looks to the future instead of ruminating about the past.
One day while out with his family at a shopping mall, two muscle-bound thugs approach him. One snatches away his kid; the other shoots him with some kind of bolt gun. Father and mother give chase, but the thugs seem more interested in provoking the father into an intemperate reaction than, say, demanding a ransom. And they get one: the father seethes not only with emotion but with energy that seems otherworldly. They provoke him again, and this time his rage manifests as a gun growing from his chest ... which discharges and blows his own son to pieces.
This mutation was ostensibly triggered by the bolt gun — the product of a mad scientist and his underground cult of skinhead bodybuilders, led by a mysterious figure (Tsukamoto again) who can produce his own gun-like manifestations. But the salaryman's wife discovers the bolt gun wasn't responsible; her husband willed his powers into existence all by himself. That makes him all the more fascinating to the Tsukamoto character, who kidnaps the two of them and experiments on them to see how much further they can both be pushed.
All spelled out
The best way to think of Body Hammer is not as a formal sequel to Tetsuo, or as a remake, but a companion piece. Most every significant creative decision in Body Hammer is the obverse of Tetsuo. Where Tsukamoto shot before in grainy, razor-edged black and white, he now shoots in vibrant color. Where the former movie blasted along at landscape-searing speed, the latter is more willing to take its time. Where Tetsuo left the relationship between its two main characters more open-ended and subject to interpretation, this time there's no mistaking who and what they are to each other.
It's this last element that is both the movie's best and worst quality. The final quarter or so of Body Hammer spells out in exacting detail how Tsukamoto and Taguchi's characters are intertwined, and so dispels any sense of mystery, and most of the possibility for open-ended interpretation, about what's going on. It makes sense on its own terms — it's not as if the movie cheats (see Alexandre Aja's risible High Tension) — but the mere fact that its dramatic resolution revolves around an explanation of background details makes for a fundamentally less riveting film. Thomas Weisser and Yuko Mihara Weisser, in their Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia, put it this way: "[Tsukamoto]'s replaced the dream with insanity, thus losing the personal quality of the film."
None of this was the product of any corporate meddling, either. Tsukamoto had intended to make Body Hammer as it was shown, as long as he could do so on his own terms and without undue interference. He did, although the shoot was plagued with problems and shut down halfway through when the money ran out (Toshiba EMI came to the rescue). But the chief flaw in the film is a matter of storytelling; it's just fundamentally that much less fascinating on its own terms than its predecessor.
Tsukamoto's next step
Where Body Hammer does work, though, is aesthetically and as a document of its creator's growth. Body Hammer swaps the high-grit black-and-white of the first film for color, and for a fair slice of its runtime it also swipes the claustrophobic grime of the first movie for cooler, airier, more open-ended flavors. Tsukamoto built no sets for the film: the couple's concrete-and-glass apartment, the futuristic shopping mall, and the high-rise cityscapes were all found locations in Tokyo. This could almost be called the first "vaporwave" movie if it weren't for the rusty iron, scrapheaps, and wreckage that dominate the second half of the film.
The first Tetsuo was brilliant but almost entirely impressionistic; there was no story to speak of, but the whole thing was constructed in such a way that a story was redundant. Body Hammer's story, even if it is a wet blanket for the horror, is an actual story, and it contains a clutch of themes Tsukamoto would revisit and rework throughout his career: the transformative power of rage (something clearly inspired by the likes of David Cronenberg's The Brood, but expanded on and made Tsukamoto's own), the plasticity of the body (ditto), and the way the modern world inspires the conflation of eroticism and violence inside and outside of us.
One way Body Hammer and its predecessor are in total synchrony is the spirit with which both were made. Body Hammer had a larger budget, but was still an entirely independent production created in the same spirit. When Taguchi's character leaps on a bike and chases the thugs that have kidnapped his wife, it's shot using some of the same inventive stop-motion animation as the predecessor film. There's no part of the movie that doesn't feel like Tsukamoto made it himself, and no part of any of his other films that don't have the same personal quality.
If Tsukamoto had never made another film after Tetsuo, he would have been a one-hit wonder to reckon with, but still only a one-hit wonder. Body Hammer is the lesser film of the two, but beyond it lie films that seem impossible for Tsukamoto to have made without it.