The one term that comes most to my mind when trying to describe Tetsuo: The Iron Man is not "body horror" or "cyberpunk". It's "handmade". Shinya Tsukamoto's first feature-length film seems like it was hot-glued together in a junkyard, shot on decades-old Army surplus film stock, and scored with a cheap Casio SK-1 sampler. Those are also all the reasons it works. A movie this frenzied, brutal, and gut-level can't look too slick. Rawness also ages more gracefully than gloss (yesterday's sleek is tomorrow's tacky), and so thirty years on Tetsuo's landmark status remains undimmed, still as gloriously outlandish and uninhibited as ever.
The hazards of the body
Horror stories work best when they explain nothing, just present us with a situation and dare us to experience it. Tetsuo opens with a scene that defies us to explain why it exists: a man (Tsukamoto himself) wanders through a shantytown-cum-scrapyard, collects a bundle of metal fragments, then holes up in a disused little hovel, gashes a massive wound in his leg, then shoves a length of rebar into it. But his body isn't ready for this kind of man-metal fusion, as the implant site rots and festers with maggots. Screaming, he flees into the street, where he's hit by a car.
Another fellow, a mild, bespectacled, subway-riding salaryman type (Tomoroh Taguchi, a staple of Japanese cinema here in his first role), experiences something equally bizarre one morning while shaving: a tiny piece of metal has lodged in his cheek. Trying to remove it only makes things worse. His daily ride on the subway is disrupted when the meek woman next to him has her body commandeered by some bizarre, steaming blob of metal. She gives chase — in a violent scene that starts with handheld camerawork and then accelerates to stupefying levels of stop-motion hyperkinesis — and when it's over, the salaryman finds he's become infected by whatever infected her.
The disease, for lack of a better word, progresses swiftly. Rocket tubes pop out of his heels, allowing him to jet along the streets at drag-racing speeds. The metal stud on his cheek spreads to cover the side of his face. His girlfriend (Kei Fujiawara) discovers, to her horror, how it affects other parts of his (ahem) anatomy. Only in time does he learn what happened: he was the driver of the car that ran over the "metal fetishist" (as one version of the film's subtitles dubbed the Tsukamoto character), and this is his revenge. And before long the two engage in a head-on duel of wills — one in love with his newfound power of metal mutation, the other horrified and disgusted, but both unwilling to surrender. Except here there may not be a winner or a loser; instead, there's the chance their combat will allow the two of them together to unleash something entirely new upon the world.
Low technology, high technique
The why of all this doesn't matter as much of the fact of it. A lesser movie would have tried to justify how all this is possible, and forgotten that it's the experience of it that matters most. Tetsuo focuses on the experience, and the look-and-feel of the experience — grainy, razor-edged black-and-white images, with sweat standing out on the skin like glass beads and smoke winding past the lens like filthy silk. Everything we see has been assembled with such painstaking care, in all its grimy miniature glory, we can't help but believe in it. Any explanation would be redundant.
What's hardest to convey in mere language is how fast the film moves. It crams more into a mere sixty-five minutes than many other movies twice its length — so much so that even on a third or fourth viewing I was still teasing out details missed before. Not just things on-screen, but thematics and deeper meanings, such as the flashbacks the Tsukamoto character has to a childhood beating at the hands of a hobo that seems to hint at the origins of his metal fetish: it's an attempt by him to assimilate and conquer the source of his trauma, both metaphorically and literally. I saw Tetsuo long before I ever saw Sam Raimi's Evil Dead / Evil Dead 2, and in retrospect it reminds me a great deal of those films — not just because of its minimal budget and frenzied camerawork, but its twisted humor. Consider the moment when Taguchi's character tentatively squeezes the metal node in his face, and it bursts like a pimple. Or the scene where the metal fetishist goes to meet the salaryman in person for the first time since their transformations, and the former dolls himself up and brings a bouquet of flowers as if going on a date.
One of the beauties of any piece of old-school filmmaking, especially indie productions, is seeing techniques now out of favor but which were the only way to get something done at the time. Tetsuo uses several. Most every shot of the principal actors have some manner of practical makeup effects, from the horrifically realistic "metal implant" sequence that opens the movie to the full-body mutations at the end. Shooting in black and white didn't just make the movie look all the grimier and fiercer, but helped disguise how the makeup was just bundles of electronic parts raided from old TVs and taped together onto latex. But most striking for me was the use of stop-motion animation or pixilation, where everything from props to actors to landscapes seethe and churn and race through the streets. Instead of looking cheesy, the way a bad, pasted-on CGI effect does, or looking like a live-action riff on a Wile E. Coyote / Road Runner cartoon, it looks shuddering, hallucinatory, nightmarish.
Tsukamoto and Fujiwara met by way of an experimental theater troupe, and Tetsuo is festooned with the flavor of experimental drama: the outlandish, kabuki-esque acting; the extreme subject matter. If it had been made ten or twenty years earlier — entirely possible with the technology at hand, come to think of it — it might well have been produced and released under the shingle of the Art Theatre Guild, where it would have played comfortably alongside the likes of Funeral Parade Of Roses. But it came out long after the ATG had folded, at a moment when commercial moviemaking in Japan was at a low artistic ebb, and not only brought Japanese cinema back to the attention of the world at large but gave it a badly needed domestic shot in the arm.
I have seen the future and it doesn't work
Masterful and ingenious as the film is in retrospect, making it was agony for Tsukamoto. According to Tom Mes's book on Tsukamoto's films, nothing in Tsukamoto's previous experiences — not even the fact that this was essentially a scaled-up remake of his earlier film Phantom Of Regular Size -- prepared him for how arduous the project would be. He and Fujiwara worked in Fujiwara's apartment on and off for eighteen months to realize nearly every aspect of the project — camerawork, effects, set design, costumes, photography. Conditions were so grueling that by the end of the production all of their cohorts had dropped out, and he and Fujiwara would part ways for keeps after the film was finished. (She went on to become an indie filmmaker in her own right.) But the pain paid off. After Tetsuo, Tsukamoto became a a major figure in Japanese film, and Taguchi's own career took off as well.
I mentioned the label "cyberpunk" at the top of this piece. The term's enjoying something of a renaissance as I write this, by way of the nostalgic 1980s-era incarnation of the aesthetic (neon colors! synth music!), but Tetsuo is nowhere near that design-motif aspect of the idea. In fact, Tsukamoto was unaware of the term at the time; he was more interested in the ero-guro potential of flesh meeting metal. Where the label applies here, it's in the way cyberpunk embodied a cynical and cautionary attitude about the way human life was becoming technologized. This cyberpunk is not not the aesthetic of the sleek, even sexy robot (see: Hajime Sorayama), but the aesthetic of trash sculpture, the scrap heap, the dead-tech excrescence of our planned-obsolescence world that displaces the living.
I also mentioned the label "body horror", and while other creators have found space in the overlap between cyberpunk and body horror — David Cronenberg's Videodrome, which came a good eight years before this — Tetsuo finds a space of its own there, one inspired more by the old-school horrors of the supernatural curse or vengeful ghost story. Those things overlay nicely atop our modern anxieties about technology — it's not like most of us really understand how this stuff works anyway; it might as well be black magic. Our primary responses to the way technology encroaches on our beings are emotional, not logical or intellectual. Tetsuo's primal scream is ours, too, even if it doesn't look like it might be.