in Shocktober

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Let me tell you about the most I ever threw up. It was a few days after Christmas in 2007 when I came down with a bad stomach flu. I remember it was 2007 because I got The Simpsons Movie for Christmas. While it would have been nice to watch the movie, instead I spent the whole day bedridden, vomiting into a bucket. Sometimes I’d fall asleep and have fever dreams about Tetris. I don’t know why Tetris. After awhile, it was hard to tell when I was awake and when I was asleep. It was a nightmarish experience I still remember to this day. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is kind of like that day.

Fever dream is the best way to describe this cyberpunk, body horror film. It’s a surrealist hallucination that moves at a breakneck speed—it clocks in at 77 minutes, some cuts come in at 67 minutes—and never rests for a second. Imagine if someone took the look and feel of Eraserhead, mixed it in a blender with the spinning camera work and dark humor of Evil Dead II, sped it up and poured it out into a kiddie pool infested with maggots. You would have this film.

The film begins with a man slicing open his own leg and jamming a metal rod in its place. Good so far. The man is played by the film’s writer and director Shinya Tsukamoto, and is known only as the “Metal Fetishist,” which I’m sure is also the name of a creepy German magazine. After seeing the rusty piece of metal attract maggots, the Fetishist runs out into the street screaming and is run over by a car, I think. The hit-and-run part is done from his point of view and is a bunch of blurry images with blaring saxophone. If it wasn’t for Wikipedia, I would have no idea what happened to him.

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Next, we meet a typical businessman played by Tomorowo Taguchi, who we learn was the driver of the hit-and-run car. Haunted by the death of the Fetishist, it gets worse after we discover the businessman and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara) covered up the death by dumping the dead body into a ravine. This curses the businessman to become a human pile of walking scrap metal, but not before he has some monster sex dreams and various encounters with other metal people. Is any of it real? Does it matter?

I’d say about the 40% of the movie is the businessman finding weird scrap metal growths on his body and then running around screaming with the footage sped up blindingly fast. It’s cool at first, until you realize this is what the whole rest of the movie is going to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic imagery. Who doesn’t enjoy watching a guy discover his penis has become a giant metal drill? The problem is that’s all the film is. Scene after scene of gross. The film tries to have a story again when the businessman encounters the Fetishist who has been resurrected for no reason, so battle. You know, like battle bots. At the end, the two metal men become one giant monster with two heads and decide to destroy mankind. Then it ends with the words: Game Over. Not really sure what I just witnessed.

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The Tetsuo monster from Akira was a big influence on writer/director/actor Shinya Tsukamoto in developing the idea of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. I mean, he literally used the character’s name for the title of his own film. Though I’m not sure which character in his version is supposed to be Tetsuo, if anyone. After this, the film is entirely its own twisted machine.

Watching Tetsuo: The Iron Man is kind of like a sweet demo reel. There’s so much to appreciate visually, but it’s only razzle dazzle. There’s no substance. I appreciate the ambition here, I only wish Tsukamoto had put as much time into the script (if there was one) as he put into the effects. Though he did make two sequels. Maybe those films are more cohesive. If not, I’m sure each one is at least as vomity and fever dream-like as this one.