Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989, dir. Shinya Tsukamoto) is one of the strangest films I’ve come across during my search for a film that disturbs me. However, it’s strange in all the right ways that speak to my soul and while it’s on the Disturbing Movie Iceberg, I feel much more inclined to title Tetsuo as a cool rock and roll art film. The plot follows an unnamed protagonist that the credits refer to as “Salary Man” (played by Tomorowo Taguchi) and his girlfriend (played by Kei Fujiwara) shortly after a hit and run accident. Unfortunately for them, the victim is not just your average person, rather a Metal Fetishist (played by Shinya Tsukamoto) whose obsession with becoming more machine than human follows him into the afterlife. As revenge for his untimely death, the Metal Fetishist curses then haunts the Salary Man as his body slowly begins to morph into a massive clump of metal and wires. Tetsuo shares Tier 3 of the Disturbing Movie Iceberg alongside titles such as Pink Flamingos and A Serbian Film. While I didn’t find Tetsuo disturbing, I can see the argument for it being considered a disturbing movie for its use of body horror and the girlfriend’s death.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a specific type of film that many might not enjoy or appreciate as much as cult junkies. I believe for a wide, general audience there are many who might say this film is difficult to understand, it's too boring, or it's too weird. My rule of thumb for suggesting this film to others is that if you don’t like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, then you aren’t going to like Tetsuo. However, if you love Lynch as I do, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a very fun, inventive, and visually amazing piece of work. I fell in love with this film within the first five minutes of watching it simply because of its presentation and the industrial world audiences get introduced to. I believe what might put most people off of giving this film a chance, or even what might keep a general audience from liking it, is the way the narrative is presented.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man moves the story forward in a manner that I would consider akin to reality. What I mean is there’s very little dialog taking place to give the audience information on what’s happening in the story. Rather, the audience needs to collect context clues as events unfold. I understand this isn’t an ideal method for most people and I’ve witnessed first hand the frustration one can feel towards films told in this way. However, I enjoyed this aspect a great deal and I did find it very rewarding to be able to put together the narrative myself rather than being spoon fed information. Also, if one is good at registering and putting together context clues then it’s not too difficult to understand Tetsuo’s story on the first watch. Likewise, as the film tips over its climax it begins to fill the viewer in with a little more information if they haven’t figured it out already; just enough to understand this is a revenge plot.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Tetsuo was – you guessed it – its frequent use of stop motion animation. Tetsuo uses stop motion to its advantage incredibly well. There are moments where stop motion isn’t necessary, but it’s still used to achieve a particular atmosphere or movement to the film which I thought was a nice change of pace. Particularly anything that’s metal or wire moves in stop motion and as the two main men become more and more machine, they begin to move in stop motion as well. Not only is this just a cool, stylistic choice but it matches the ambience of the film and makes it feel even more haunting, rigged, and nightmarish. The stop motion in Tetsuo really shines once The Metal Fetishist returns from the dead as many of his powers are focused on controlling metal/electronics and stop motion was probably the best method to pull these practical effects off. I believe it’s also a fairly simple, though time consuming, method that doesn’t get used as often as it could in cinema.
Finally, I can’t discuss Tetsuo without also highlighting how erotic this movie is. Even as the film opens there’s a clear sexual underbelly to the Metal Fetishist’s obsession. One might think this is obvious because the character’s name is Metal Fetishist, however he’s never referred to this name in the film and it only shows up in the ending credits. The Metal Fetishist’s home is a claustrophobic junkyard of pipes, chain link fencing, wires hanging, and random pieces of sheet metal. Metal surrounds his entire life and being. He has a sexual relationship with metal in the sense that he wishes to become it – not unlike real world fetishists who might participate in activities such as puppy play to name one example. Still, he has a physical sexual relationship with metal as well as there are moments where he’s biting and licking on screws. Both aspects of his fetish I believe could make for an interesting, full blown analysis and/or essay. But it’s not just the Metal Fetishist that’s shakingly aroused as the Salary Man and his girlfriend have sex a lot and as one begins to unfold the entire story it’s clear to see why the two are then tortured sexually as well. It’s sadistic, but for the revenge plot it makes a lot of sense to include.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man – A Tier
Tetsuo: The Iron Man might be the most refreshing and creative horror flick I’ve had the pleasure of watching (so far) this year. I feel as if I might have said this about one or two movies, but I really mean it after watching Tetsuo. So much of it is Lynchian inspired yet Tsukamoto still has a cinematic voice and style that’s completely his own. While I didn’t find the film disturbing, I did find it as an easy and fun watch. Tetsuo is incredibly playful with its horror and the extreme content that some scenes head towards really highlights the creative ambition Tsukamoto had while making this film. Like my favorite film of all time, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I can see Tetsuo: The Iron Man becoming a horror movie that I regularly return to due to its amusing plot and stunning visuals.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is available to stream via Shudder and Amazon Prime Video