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Review: ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ – A Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Cyberpunk Fantasy

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Review: 'Tetsuo: The Iron Man' - A Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Cyberpunk Fantasy

A ton has been written about this movie already. It is art, and it’s appreciated as such, and there’s a ton of great writing about the nuance and creativity in Tetsuo: The Iron Man. But how much has been written by an under-qualified dropout stoned at his dead-end temp job in Chicago? I implore you. Seek it out, come back and show me. I’m the only one.

I used to get David Lynch and David Cronenberg confused when I was a kid. I think that it was because they’re both named David. Also, they both make movies. I can’t find too many similarities in their movies, except that maybe my Mom would think they’re both “yucky.”

I guess another similarity is that, sometimes, both directors are asking a lot of their audience. Lynch leaves you looking for more, but Cronenberg dares you to not look away. They push boundaries and they’ve definitely both supplied a lot of nightmare imagery. Lynch is all about “behind a curtain” and Cronenberg is all about “under the skin.”

Tetsuo The Iron Man 1989

So why the hell am I talking about one American and one Canadian filmmaker in a review for a Japanese cyberpunk movie? Because, I have a super-limited vocabulary for what I saw in Tetsuo: The Iron Man. I’m doing my best here folks, and I don’t want to fall back on clichés. I told you earlier that there’s a lot of writing on Tetsuo: The Iron Man. I’m trying, right now, to NOT sound like all those other writers. There are all these words that get overused in film criticism. And I’m trying to make a list of these adjectives, so that I can avoid using them. Because I have a feeling here, people. I think that people who write about film say stuff like “surreal” and “Kafkaesque” or “Lynchian” when they don’t know how else to describe a movie. Instead of pointing at Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a lotta folks just draw comparisons to other stuff, and I get that.

The movie feels disjointed and dream-like, so it makes sense to call it Lynchian. There’s a lot of body horror in this movie, so it makes sense to call it Cronenbergian. But holy hell do those terms sound self-important and jackass-y. Aren’t we really taking the piss out of foreign artwork if we need to see it through the lens of North American filmmakers? What’s the point of watching a Japanese movie if you need to process all of it through connections to Hollywood movies?

Because the truth, here, is that Tetsuo: The Iron Man is way too fleshy to be “David Lynch,” and it’s way too fantastical to be “David Cronenberg.” You know why? Because it wasn’t made by either of those directors! It was made by Shin’ya Tsukamoto! Our need, as critics and audiences, to process Japanese movies through our own Western lenses, comforts us. Because brains don’t really like chaos. Instead, brains like to sort things into patterns. We like to ascribe “sames” to things… “This is the same as Eraserhead, because of its black-and-white imagery,” or “This is the same as Videodrome, because of its grisly mutilations.” But the uncomfortable truth, the real chaos in it, is that Tetsuo: The Iron Man is NOT the same as these or any other movies, and describing it as similar to anything else denies its uniqueness. And that unique quality is what makes Tetsuo so special. It is unlike anything else I have ever seen before.

Tetsuo The Iron Man Movie Image

Tsukamoto’s is a singular vision, and it predates a lot of modern science fiction. Make no mistake, the imagery and the gore in Tetsuo make it a horror movie, but the story is very-much-so sci-fi. It’s all very aligned with the much-blighted Black Mirror ethos of “technology = bad.”

So, a metal fetishist is putting a rod into his leg. Stay with me. There’s no apparent reason for these actions other than “Hey, this is what’s gonna start the movie, ok?” The Metal Fetishist (or MF, as I’ll call him from now on out) freaks out and runs outside and into the street. Is he screaming in agony? Or is he feeling ecstasy? We just don’t know, but one could guess it’s some hellish middle ground. So he sticks a metal rod in his leg and then runs into the street, where he immediately gets run over.

I could go on in more earnest detail about what I think happens in this movie, but that would be an injustice. A) You’d all think I’m making it up. And B) I wouldn’t even be able to describe it all very accurately. The structure of the movie, the skeleton on which everything hangs, is straightforward enough, but it’s told in a disjointed way. We see the inciting incident, but we’re left to piece together the ways it affects the principal characters. And even though it propels the movie forward, the story seems like an afterthought at times.

Tetsuo The Iron Man Movie Still

“Frenetic” is a word that more accurately describes this movie than the oft-used “surreal.” One of the defining characteristics of Tetsuo is the way it’s edited. It’s all cut together so quickly; the energy of it is really contagious. I think a film is really powerful if you have a physical reaction to it. Tetsuo: The Iron Man has that power. I felt incredibly anxious and energized watching this movie. The editing, paired with the soundtrack to this movie, makes for a jittery, over-caffeinated experience. The music seems to be primarily made of drum machines and synthesizers, and reminds me of some of the early Suicide songs. So, two thumbs way, way up on that front. Shit, did I just put Japanese art through an American lens?

This movie demands to be blasted into your eyes in some big format. Big screen, projector, whatever, I dare you to pull your chair up as close as possible. Turn the volume up as much as you can. It’s a punk experience, and it deserves your full attention. And maybe it deserves some of the blood dripping from your orifices. If your eyes bleed, consider it a token sacrifice to the Metal Gods. And if your brains fall out of your ears, all the better. You won’t be needing it anyway. Not where we’re going. “Together, we can turn this fucking world to rust!”

So do yourself a favor. Bathe it in. Let the imagery and sounds of Tetsuo: The Iron Man wash over you. It’s a perfect halfway point between lowbrow exploitation and highbrow artsy ambitions. It feels like you could find it in a grindhouse or in an art museum. I love it, and if you have any feelings, I’d love for you to share them with me. Reach out and email me at billreick@gmail.com. Or reach me on Twitter, @billreick.

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