I’m always on a quest to watch films that people recommend as being ‘odd’, ‘weird’, ‘surreal’ or otherwise ‘bat-shit mental’. As such, you can probably imagine that I’m no stranger to Japanese cinema. With their penchant for over-the-top violence, surreal imagery and absurdism a lot of really interesting and bizarre film comes out of Japan, some of which is beautiful, disturbing, fascinating and prolific, and some of which is just absolutely mad.
Despite my interest in expressionist and experimental cinema, I’d never actually seen the world famous Tetsuo: The Iron Man until last night. Wow, what a ride that was! It’s one of those films that you don’t so much watch as you experience.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a 1988 black and White tour de force of filmaking which explores concepts of dehumanisation at the hands of industry and technology. It’s often paired up with the Cyberpunk genre although I’m not convinced that’s a satisfactory label for the film. Tetsuo defies genre mixing elements of surrealism, body horror, sci fi, action, erotica and more into an hours bombardment of images and ideas.
The main thing that kept floating through my head as I watched it, was a paragraph from the Futurism Manifest written by F. T. Marinetti in 1909.
Futurism was/is an art movement which began in Italy. It sought to move away form ideas of the past and instead focus on the future. It was a bold, brash movement which reveled in concepts of speed, violence, machinery and industry. Motion became a staple of Futurizmo and objects such as motor cars and aeroplanes were incredibly important to them. The futurists sought to move the world forward into an industrial age with force, by fiercely rejecting the past and storming ahead with all the power of a locomotive. They glorified war and spat on ideas of morality, feminism and peace.
For me, watching Tetsuo: The Iron man was like seeing the ideas of Futurism on screen in beautiful and terrifying clarity.
Tetsuo begins as it means to continue as we are assaulted with harsh images of an industrial suburb of the city. A man, identified in the credits as ‘Fetishist’ enters his home, which is full of unidentifiable mechanics, wires, gears and metal rods. Here the camera glides erratically over the collection of strange and almost alien mechanics, set to a pounding, metallic soundtrack. Suddenly and without warning the fetishist slashes open his leg and forces a length of metal tubing into the wound. Later, when he unwraps it he’s horrified to see that the wound has become infected and has begun to rot, covered in maggots. In horror he runs out into the street and is knocked over by a car. This scene, in contrast, is backed by smooth 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll. Again we’re treated to an all too familiar but strangely otherworldly landscape of metal and wire, as well as the words ‘NEW WORLD’ written on a piece of scenery.
This cinematic punch to the face is a bold opening statement already mixing images of agony with pleasure, ugliness with beauty and progression with death. These mixed messages will continue and grow throughout the film until one is barely discernible from the other, pleasure becomes about agony, ugliness becomes beauty. This mirrors some of the ideas written in the Futurist manifesto about 80 years earlier when they speak of a ‘new beauty’, a beauty far away from the traditional concept which glorifies nature and calmness, but instead acknowledges speed, noise and the unnatural:
We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
The story of Tetsuo begins some time after the car crash and follows the man who knocked over the fetishist. He begins to notice bits of metal protruding from his skin and over the course of the film he slowly and painfully transforms into a sort of human junkyard.
In this context the idea of a man turning into a sort of mechanical monstrosity is of course a metaphor for the dominance of industry over nature. It mirrors the way a city grows, swallowing the landscape around it, exactly the way Tetsuo is swallowed by the metal in his body. It also speaks of the dehumanisation of man as we become just parts of a larger mechanism, a message which has been found in films before, most notably in another futurism inspired masterpiece; Metropolis. This isn’t the only similarity Tetsuo bares to Metropolis. The way Fritz Lang filmed close ups of moving machines in a way to make them otherworldly is very similar to what Tsukamoto is doing in Tetsuo. Some of the expressive performances in Tetsuo are also very reminiscent of certain scenes/characters in Metropolis.
Of course the story isn’t only working on an abstract level but on a literal one too. The idea of man literally becoming machine is very prominent in futurism and from it concepts such as Transhumanism and Technological Singularity have risen. In 1927 Fritz Lang was affected by this when making Metropolis in the wake of the First World War, as Anton Kaes noted in his essay Metropolis: City, Cinema, Modernity;
Millions of veterans with prostheses and mechanical body parts—half machine, half human—walked the streets… The war and its aftermath provided the ultimate context for modernism, Metropolis offers a hallucinatory vision of the relationship between humanity and machine.
It’s not some alien invasion of intelligent machines coming from Mars to invade us. It’s coming from within our civilization and the whole point of it is to extend our reach.
And this is what is happening In Tetsuo. As he metamorphoses into his new metal form, he in many ways becomes better, stronger, more powerful whilst all the while loosing his compassion, love and gentility. Seen from a futurist perspective we can acknowledge that these more human sensibilities make one weak and their loss is a positive thing. By replacing these with raw power and aggression he becomes stronger, better, more able to take on the future. As a metaphor this is strikingly similar to the way the futurists called for the destruction of art galleries, libraries and academies because they stifle creation. In order to move forward and create something new and extraordinary, one most let go of comforts that hold them back. In Marinetti’s words:
To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action… Indeed daily visits to museums, libraries and academies…is for artists what prolonged supervision by the parents is for intelligent young men…
After the opening sequence and a short scene showing Tetsuo noticing a shard of metal growing from his face we see him in relative normality, or the closest we’ll get to normality. He speaks to his girlfriend on the phone, a conversation in which the duo repeat the term ‘hello’ eight or nine times in a show of everyday monotony. It is only after one of them mentions the accident that the conversation, and the film itself is allowed to continue. Following this is a couple of nightmarish sequences in which Tetsuo is chased by a woman with a mechanical arm, and a second where his girlfriend (with Brigitte Helm style expressive make up) rapes him with a metal tentacle like appendage.
Both these scenes are genuinely unsettling and are probably some of the scarier things I’ve seen on film recently. Both reinforce the idea of progression through force as Tetsuo’s changes begin in a violent and violating manner. There may also be a sense that one cannot outrun progress, nor con it be beaten. The chase scene is filmed in short, frantic bursts as Tetsuo flees through a maze of underground corridors, perfectly invoking that sense of speed and constant motion that one associates with underground transport and power lines. The dream sequence (although distinctions between dream/wake, fantasy/reality should be taken very lightly here) mixes the erotic with the violent whilst none too subtly hammering the point that industry is a forceful invasion on nature.
The film carries on with this theme in some of the brashest film-making I’ve seen in a while. Eroticism continues to mix with violent, forceful symbolism until it reaches its bold and unforgettable conclusion. Metallic screeches and groans cry out while the woman’s teeth slide over a fork. With each sound Tetsuo reacts with a mix of pleasure and revulsion until it all becomes too much and…
There is an assumption here that the bizarre and violent sexual content tells a wider story of impotence, repression and the weakness of the flesh. I think it says more about human nature and thril in the face of violence and chaos. Here, the phallus is a symbol of destruction and invasion in the most literal form. Even the most normal instance of sex in the film takes place just after the couple have dumped the fetishist’s body in a ditch. It’s the thrill of having killed a man which ignites the passion in them, and then is furthered by the thrill of being watched. As the woman groans ‘honey, he’s watching us!’ the scene climaxes with a film stock explosion. Even here sex is seen as a destructive act and this only becomes more prevalent when Tetsuo literally drills her to death. It’s interesting to note that she is only drilled after she wins a confrontation with him, stabbing him in the neck. After this she becomes overtly sexual again which results in her gruesome death. Just like before, it is she who penetrates Tetsuo before he is allowed to penetrate her. There’s more phallic imagery at the end of the film when Tetsuo and the revived(?) fetishist are moulded together and transformed into a massive penis shaped tank ready to destroy the world.
The male genitalia here is nothing but a force of destruction, a symbol of power, strength and speed. This is in keeping with ideas put forward in the futurist manifesto which denounces feminism and literally hopes to breed contempt for women. For them femininity is a symbol of weakness and cowardice, something that only exists to subdue the destructive and creative power of male compulsion.
We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
As the film continues Tetsuo’s agonised screams become background noise, along with the pounding, mechanical soundtrack. Images of his ever-changing body become more and more grotesque as an already aggressive film ramps up the violence and horror, never letting up right until the credits roll.
The dead fetishist comes back from wherever he had been dumped and fights Tetsuo in a manga-esque battle put together with fast paced, angry stop-motion. After all is said and done the two characters are morphed together into that giant penis-tank I mentioned before. The imagery here is nasty and discomforting completely at odds with the feelings of the characters. Tetsuo himself is now nothing more than a head, surrounded by metal and dribbling blood or oil. Yet he gladly pronounces ‘I feel great’.
The fetishist, who is at the… head of the tank, brandishing a gun speaks of destroying the world: ‘How about turning the whole world into metal? You and me. We can rust the whole world and scatter it to the dust of the universe. Our love can put an end to this fucking world!’
Of course he’s talking about their love of violence, of speed and of industry. He’s speaking of ending the world as it is and driving it forward into a new age. Denouncing what is old and traditional, literally burying it in metal. In its final moments the film drives home the main focus of the futurist movement with crystal clear clarity. As Marinetti wrote:
Let the good incendiaries with charred fingers come! Here they are! Heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries! Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns! […] Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? it is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!
Tetsuo: The Iron Man may not be the most profound film ever made, and certainly isn’t the most likable film I’ve seen. In fact it’s a hateful, vicious piece of film-making which takes the concept of subtlety and explodes it in front of the audience. But the futurists weren’t interested in subtlety either, and they sure as hell didn’t care if people liked them. What Tetsuo is, for me, is an almost perfect example of this particular art movement. I’ve never seen another film, or art work of any kind which has so thoroughly and accurately embodied the concepts and atmosphere of futurism.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say about the film; that the role of the fetishist is actually played by the writer and director of the piece and how that changes the perspective of the film (just think of the ‘honey, he’s watch us’ scene); or about certain gestures (such as a man miming a drill-penis with an iron bar) brings the various scenes of sexual violence into a different light. But I feel like it’s unnecessary at this point. There are a lot of layers to this film and a lot to be said in its short run-time. Mainly though it’s a mad, frenetic bombardment of images which starts with a bang and never lets up, dragging the audience through with its visceral images and pulse-pounding sound scape, offering no exit from the ride. And that, in itself is a perfect representation of the kind of art that futurism was interested in producing.
Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.