Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Death by robo-penis: My thoughts on Tetsuo (1989)

Wow! This film is amazing! I have had it on dvd for a while now, and kind of knew I'd love it, but have only just got around to watching it.

Before I start, I shall say that I deliberately wrote this blog before reading anything that other people had to say, as I wanted to make up my own mind, have my own ideas, and form my own theories (this film begs consideration of its symbolism and the societal issues it seems to be focusing on). But I will be heading across to the IMDB message boards after this to have a look at other peoples' theories!

And so, to the blog proper...

"Fuck you. Don't you understand?
Your future is metal."

Shot entirely in black and white, the dark and grainy look of this film is juxtaposed with strange and jarring sounds, punctilious attention to detail (almost like a haunting, but oddly beautiful, montage of still photographs), shocking imagery and stop-motion animation. The 'look' of the whole thing brings to mind the work of artist H. R. Giger, and his explorations of the interaction between / fusion of man and machine and depictions of dark, threatening, biomechanical landscapes.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is very industrial in appearance. It can be extremely confusing and difficult to follow, but the plot, broadly, is that a character simply titled Fetishist (a metal fetishist...we see him, very early in the film – a shocking image – purposefully inserting a metal rod into his own thigh. He then notices that the wound is riddled with maggots and runs, screaming, out into the street) is hit by a car. The driver of this car winds up with a metal plate stuck in his head and is told that to remove it would kill him. Thereafter he gradually morphs into the titular Iron Man, the metal assimilating into his body, growing and using his flesh like a parasite to propagate itself. The beauty of the camera shots and the fact it is in black and white make the contrast with the lurid, turn your stomach, imagery even greater.

Anyone who has arrived here via a Google search for Ted Hughes may well be disappointed!

This film is disorientating (but definitely disturbing) and can seem desultory and fitful, but the whole thing is visually mesmerising and, using only a very small budget, very precisely brought into being (the director, Shinya Tsukamoto, is also credited for screenplay and art direction, lighting direction, editing, special effects and co-photography – as well as starring in the film as the Fetishist). There is obvious attention to detail in every shot, exciting (and exacting) camera work and editing...this is like a short film that is 67 minutes in length.
In places it looks like an expertly choreographed ballet. In other scenes it is some kind of pop music video (I'm sure Michael Jackson has taken some inspiration from this, only with a much larger budget...and I'm not even going to get into the whole 'transformation' side of the debate!) or, with help from the soundtrack created by musician Chu Ishikawa (click here to download the soundtrack...just click on the 'free' column), an industrial metal (metal...ha! How appropriate!) or dark electronica video (think Aphex Twin). It might even remind you of (and therefore may have influenced) The Terminator (admittedly, fucked-up Japanese style!), except inverted – here the metal is on the outside, the man trapped inside and engulfed.
Special effects-wise, this looks like Videodrome, or even Re-Animator or Peter Jackson's Braindead. And the gradual transformation of the Salaryman (Tomorah Taguchi) is every bit as memorable and, in my opinion, successful as the metamorphosis in An American Werewolf in London. It does not (indeed could not) rely on CGI or massive budgets, as do more recent films. The images here are urban-industrial-futuristic and the film, despite being dark in atmosphere, look and tone, is frenetic in pace. The anime influence in terms of the story and the violence is also clear to see.
Here are some of my own theories about the issues it might be addressing, the questions the film might be asking etc:

Might it be about the advance of technology, our relationship with it, and the way it is encroaching into our lives? A warning about relying on technology or letting it take over (CCTV, 1984's 'telescreens' - “Big Brother is watching you”, or perhaps even controlling you...from the inside! Not to mention more recent discourse over microchips, ID cards and general governmental surveillance)? Or could it be about the machine, or other emblems of technological advance, as status symbol and, beyond functionality, the anthropomorphism and sexualisation of the inanimate, e.g. cars and motorcycles?
It could equally be a comment on our hidden sexual desires, our id suppressed and concealed from society. Tetsuo is certainly very much about the sexual being – at times bordering on some kind of mechano-porn or cyberotica (even the relatively comedic / light relief elements of this film come in the form of a giant, spinning, motorised penis - “You want a taste of my sewage pipe?”)! Is it a nod to the fact that we never really know what is beneath the surface of the 'normal' man? We could be seeing the Salaryman's hidden core forcing itself to the surface; his darkest desires, his yearning for some sort of power and recognition. Is it, therefore, about the monster within each of us (the high-school shooter who 'flips' and those closest to him could never foresee that he was capable of such acts)?
Which leads me to thinking about the film's possible observations on society itself. Are we being lead to reflect upon the factory-line conveyor-belt of workers expected to look, dress and behave in the same way, i.e. the mechanisation of an individual in a conformist and regimented society? If so, surely it is relevant that none of the characters in this film are given names and that this all happens to a workaday, business-suited, 'average' man. Or perhaps it references the alienation people feel, our disenchanted / disengaged / desensitised / phlegmatic / anaesthetised / delete as appropriate* youth; part of a society where the constant onslaught of media imagery, video games and casual violence and sex (both on and off screen – consider the recent 'trend' for filming assaults on mobile phones) has narcotised them. Discursively, then, it could be about individuality and acknowledgment of peoples' different aspirations and expectations – for the Salaryman this is dystopia, for the Fetishist the achievement of nirvana.
As for the need to be recognised as an individual, it could even be seen as alluding to our relationship with our own bodies – we often feel as if betrayed, that we are not in control (Salaryman's transformation could even be an analogy for the ageing process, thrust upon us against our will). Is it questioning modern trends for plastic surgery and body modification (piercing, tattoos, implants, branding, scarification etc.) and asking where this will all end?

I don't know the answers to any of the above questions, but I definitely don't remember the last time a film made me think and hypothesise so much! Ultimately, we don't even know for sure whether this film is showing us dreadful nightmares or startling 'realities'.

Ok, so finally to some reasons you might not like this film: it is gruesome and shocking in parts; it is low budget and you will have seen technically better special effects (but that's so not the point); it can be confusing and disorientating; it doesn't hand you all the answers; there is barely any dialogue at all – it is mostly an abundance of raucous, angular industrial sounds and loud music; the scenes where the camera is chasing through Japan are at head-fuck speed (and totally look like they were inspiration for the Madonna video for Ray Of Light!).
It's going straight on my list of great films!
I would LOVE to hear what you think of the film, what it made you think about and, indeed, if you thought it was a complete waste-of-time-piece-of-rubbish! Does anyone know if Tetsuo II: Body Hammer is also worth seeing?

File under: Horror, sci-fi, cyber-porn!


Anonymous said...

Catchy Title! LOL

I'm going to have to see if I can get my hands on that film.

Pablothehat said...

I think I may have seen it once when I was way out of my skull at a party? Or indeed might have been the party! So much time, so little conciousness.

Anyway, DV, you are developing into one fine writer! My Hat's off to you!

Divinyl said...

You are, as ever, a sweetie Pablo :o) Thank really is great to know someone likes it and it makes me feel rather super! :o) It is seriously one crazy film...absolutely mind-blowing. I'm just about to watch the Atom Films one you showed up on my 'new things' list over there (I LOVE Atom Films!). x

--Bamboo Blitz-- said...

What a stellar review...Now, I really have to see this film for myself!

Divinyl said...

Totally...if you like Asian Cinema and the whole horror/Tartan Asia Extreme genre, then it's a must!

Nemanja said...

Excellent review!
Film was as mind blowing as a nuke.
I bought it from sheer curiosity (title was the most influencing thing).
Watched it with a friend. Man, I couldn't get my head straight after it. So profound, and yet so blunt.
I'm bought! Just got the sequel, I'm gonna watch it definitely.

Divinyl said...

Welcome to Ceci N'est Pas un Blog Nemanja, and thank you so much for taking the time to comment :o) Really pleased you liked the review!

And the film is just awesome (in the true sense of the word) isn't it? Even now, almost 20 years on. Seriously, as silly as it may sound, a life-changing piece of cinema for me.

You'll have to let me know if you think Body Hammer is also worth watching (if you see this reply, anyway)...I've heard very mixed reviews, so have kind of shied away from it, as I didn't want to tarnish my experience of the original if it's not up to scratch!