International film: Tetsuo – A combination of disgusting body horror and cyberpunk cynicism


Written by Jason Fox.

To quote his full name, Tetsuo the Iron Man (1989) is a dystopian techno take on hell realized by one of Japan’s most original and violent cinematic minds, Shinya Tsukamoto. It’s a sci-fi horror masterpiece like nothing else before (or since) and absolutely essential for anyone who can stand it.

It was the first movie I watched as part of Grimmfest’s “J Horror Day” at Stockport Plaza. Set in a world without order or structure, the film serves no other purpose than to sow horror in the hearts of its audience. It does so with some of the most striking and spooky imagery in cinema, combined with a gruesome industrial soundscape that makes for brilliant listening in and of itself.

Tetsuo the Iron Man Trailer

Tetsuo follows a Japanese businessman whose mind and body are ultimately consumed by machines, creating the “Iron Man”. As we follow his eerily erotic plight, he begins to form a bizarre relationship with a bizarre individual known only as Metal Fetishist. A thematic focus on disillusionment with modernity makes the film particularly prescient. His sanity, body, and relationships crumble as the structure of the film itself crumbles into chaos. Drawing inspiration from pre-existing tropes of avant-garde Japanese cinema Tsukamoto creates something incomparably extreme and inimitable in its visual presentation and surreal storytelling.

However, in describing the plot of Tetsuo feels too arbitrary. The value of the film is simply in experiencing its strangeness, its strange visual flair combined with its almost anarchic feel. A furious rhythm combined with a tone which, in simple terms, is that of relentless terror, grabs the audience by their throats and never lets go.

Every frame, every action is punctuated by a horrific industrial soundscape and some of the most raw, powerful and oppressive music ever made. Even the moments when the action seems to stop only serve to increase the tension. This film naturally drew comparisons from critics with various different musical genres, including some forms of extreme metal. In a sense, this is correct.

However, most strikingly, the genre that reminds me of is harsh white noise, where all of the melody, structure, and form are taken over by a relentless storm of computer-generated distortion. Watching this movie has a remarkably similar effect to listening to this kind of music. You get a window into the state of mind of a tortured and tottering protagonist. You are given a very real and intimate sense of his psychological and physical deterioration as he is consumed by machines.

Photo: Tetsuo the Iron Man, by Dominic Alves, Flickr

The images in this film are second to none. He has an unwavering eye for intense violence but always manages to present it in a way that is beautiful. The only area that lacks beauty is its graphic presentation of sexual violence. It presents sex as something horribly ugly and violent, with moments of intimacy overcome by sounds of metal to metal. It all leads to the most memorable moment in the entire film, which remains to this day one of the most disturbing images in horror cinema.

The imagery alone and the messy way it is presented justifies its recognition as one of the best films of all time. It is the expression of a deeply disturbed artistic vision like nothing else before or since. Although undoubtedly a product of its time, it is no less disturbing today than it was when it was created and is essential to any body horror lover.

A combination of disgusting body horror and cyberpunk cynicism, the film is a delight for fans of the madness and downright surreal. However, this is not a movie to watch passively. Its intensity, aggressiveness and breathtaking pace make it an intense but exhausting watch.



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