Tetsuo: The Iron Man Movie Review

Written by Ilan Sheady

Released by Third Window Films

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Written and directed by Shin'ya Tsukamoto
1989, 67 minutes, Rated 18 (UK)
UK Blu-ray released on 16th July 2018

Tomorô Taguchi as Man
Kei Fujiwara as Woman
Nobu Kanaoka as Woman in Glasses
Shin'ya Tsukamoto as Metal Fetishist


Growing up in the 80s and 90s, pre internet and pre SKY TV, the only real television gold came from late night movies. By the time I was old enough to be upgraded to my own room and my own TV, weird late-night films were a regular thing. Among my fondest memories were discovering Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and David Cronenberg’s Rabid and were great rewards for successfully fighting the urge to fall asleep.

One particular movie stood out amongst all the others as something objectively terrifying, visually striking, audibly disturbing and outside of Godzilla movies offered a first introduction to Japanese cinema: Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron man.

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The opening of Tetsuo presents an identity-less man at an industrial factory methodically undressing, slicing open his leg with a knife and inserting a long corrugated bar all the way up to his knee. The process is bloody, grimy and accompanied with hyper-detailed audio effects. The man (Shin’ya Tsukamoto himself - credited as Metal Fetishist) looks down at his mutilation and is horrified to see maggots infesting his wound. He promptly runs out into the streets in a panic but is struck by a car; A man flails wildly over the brilliant and now iconic anxiety inducing sound of industrial metal during the opening credits.

This opening scene sets the tone of Tetsuo and that tone is equal parts confusing, disturbing and impactful. Tetsuo is filmed purely in black and white, incorporating the textures of the metal, the industrial surroundings and volatile bodily fluids like paint on a canvas and the combination of music and sound is like an unrelenting, continuous punch in the face.

Our ‘flailing man’, the unnamed protagonist (Tomorô Taguchi), begins his day like any other: shaving before going to work, however this specific day he notices an odd piece of metal fused to his cheek that, when touched, erupts in blood.

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Concealing his discovery under a bandage he continues his journey to work but while waiting at the station for his train he is attacked by a crazed woman with metal protruding from her arm.

Any further exploration into Tetsuo’s content goes heavily into spoiler territory. Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s nightmarish masterpiece is at its best going in blind without any prior knowledge.

Tetsuo drags you violently through its jigsaw-like narrative only making sense at the very end and only for those who are extremely observant and imaginative enough to put the pieces together. Until then, everything seems like a collage of extreme set pieces following on from even more extreme set pieces, with transitions and cutaways lacking any rationality. Having no context makes the experience of watching the disturbing scenes even more uncomfortable reminiscent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and arguably to Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm.

Tetsuo is pure nightmare fuel and, despite repeat viewings on VHS over the years, has never faded in its ability to disturb me.

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2019 marks the 30 year anniversary of the release of Tetsuo and I was extremely fortunate to have attended Frankfurt’s Nippon Connection festival, a celebration of Japanese film, culture and creativity. Opening night was a particularly special event for me as not only was I able to see Tetsuo with an audience but also got to meet the director and actor Shin’ya Tsukamoto.

Seeing Tetsuo on the big screen for the first time came with several revelations. It wasn’t until I sat in front of an HD quality projection with cinema quality surround sound that I could truly appreciate the numerous layers of sound, textures and use of lighting that were lost on low quality television. Editing was substantially ahead of its time with strange, out-of-context, meme-like cutaways resembling videos from contemporary youtubers.

Tetsuo is a very unique and bizarre entity that easily fits along side other body horrors, but is best considered an art piece. Even director Shinya Tsukamoto introduced Tetsuo, not as a film, but as “music that has interesting visuals” and while he’s, technically, not wrong, his humility does his film a disservice. It is understandable why Tsukamoto would consider the score by Chilu Ishakawa to be the biggest selling point. Tetsuo primarily features a fusion of metal (unironically) and punk with neck-breaking intensity, utilising sounds that come straight from the industrial landscape. However for Tetsuo to make the cinematic impact that it did, required everything else turning up to 11 as well and in that there can be no doubt.

Discomfort, however, is definitely a double-edged sword here and confusion, no matter how intentional, isn’t always the best feeling to experience during a movie. Less intentional is that once the characters have a certain amount of makeup and effects caked on to them, it can be very confusing distinguishing who is who. Seeing it with an audience at last meant I was able to compare notes and discovered that I wasn’t alone in not realising an actor had been replaced between two shots.

In 30 years Tetsuo: The Iron Man has not faded in quality, impact or relevance. It’s as hideously stunning today as it was when it was made and deserves every second of surround sound screen time the cinemas are currently giving it.

If you are interested in seeing it on a big screen with an audience, check your local indie cinemas. Liverpool Horror Club will be presenting it in September as part of Scalarama with the blessing of Tsukamoto himself.


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