Japan’s frantic post-war economic reconstruction and the powerful impact that it had on the nation’s culture and aspirations has been well documented in hand-wringing research papers the world over, but when it comes to the boom of the late-Eighties which kicked off in 1986 and was chiefly driven by heavy industry – steel and automotive manufacture to feed an orgy of consumption at home, rather than export overseas – our major point of reference will be eternally Shinya Tsukamoto’s frantic and experimental cult body horror film Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
Released in 1988 in claustrophobic black and white – the high definition conversion can only do so much given it was filmed on 16mm, but the deep shadows and rich blacks that HD obsessives get all breathless over and definitely present – Tetsuo crafts a hybrid as macabre and unsettling as its subject matter. Partly a well honed folkloric tale of revenge (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, in many respects is a traditional Japanese ghost story) and part a more contemporary mediation on unchecked industrialisation, a “metal fetishist” (played by Tsukamoto himself), aspiring to some sort of superhuman ideal, sticks an iron rod in his leg, before freaking out at the results of his safety scissor surgery and charging into the road where he’s hit by a car driven by sweaty businessman (Tomorowo Taguchi) and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). Dumping the body in some woods, they then have sex against a tree with the man as a seemingly reluctant participant – throwing various sexual neuroses into the mix that come to fruition later on when the chap’s erection powers through a table in the form of a murderous drill and his other half seems initially quite excited – the man is increasingly haunted by surreal visions of human/iron hybrids hunting him through a subway, and undergoes a harrowing transformation into a monstrous mass of flesh and scrap.
Heavily using stop motion, flashy editing, expressionistic close-ups (serviced by the fantastic physical acting from Taguchi and Fujiwara, both competing to discover new ways of screaming), found footage-before-found footage POVs and disorientating montages of nightmarish imagery, including a figure bursting from some sort of metallic pupa and anal rape via dancing duct work, the work of Swiss surrealist and Alien progenitor HR Giger, as well as Canadian body horror auteur David Cronenberg are clearly both ever-present in the feverish mind of Shinya Tsukamoto.
While Tetsuo: The Iron Man is the better piece of art (clanking industrial score and all), 1992’s Tetsuo II: Body Hammer is the better slab of popcorn-grazing entertainment. More of a ground-up remake rather than a sequel – think of The Evil Dead to Evil Dead II model – the rubber faced Japanese answer to Bruce Campbell, Tomorowo Taguchi, returns as a Tokyo salaryman undergoing a surreal transformation to man-manchine.
Armed with a bigger budget, the trade-off is a far more conventional narrative with little of the first film’s purposeful ambiguity, albeit one clearly heir to the same extreme and discomforting weirdness. Our businessman this time has his young son snatched by thugs wearing the international garb of the cyberpunk antagonist – trenchcoats and mirror shades – and is injected with something, pushed to a murderous, gleeful rage by his tormentors he develops incredible strength and the ability to transform body parts into firearms – no drill-cock here, instead phallic handguns are the order of the day.
The basic plot framework is a bit of a superhero origin story, but stylistically it’s a powerful influence on everything from The Matrix to 12 Monkeys‘ future segments to most of Rammstein’s music videos – all skinhead cults, intravenous head jacks, cruciform dentist chairs, blue filter and factory fight scenes while an industrial soundtrack loops mono-maniacally in the background.
Lurking behind three different types of trailer that people still insist on including on bonus discs is a lengthy interview with director/writer Shinya Tsukamoto where he thoughtfully chews over the meaning of cyberpunk (it’s always nice hearing a creator enthuse on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome) and various points of his career and the making of the first two Tetsuo films. Also on the disc is his 1987 47-minute not-quite-short, The Adventures Of Electric Rod Boy which follows a boy at school, bullied for the electric pole growing out of his back. It’s a bizarre artefact full of cartoonish, Chuckle Brothers overacting, but well worth a watch, as transported into a dystopian future that begins to take on characteristics of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, poor old Electric Rod Boy must save the world that’s tormented him for so long…