If punk was the stripped-down, DIY expression of countercultural attitudes, and if cyberpunk explored the relation between individual and technology in a dystopian future, then Tsukamoto Shinya’s Tetsuo falls somewhere between the two. For its down-and-dirty, fast-and-furious aesthetic – and Ishikawa Chu’s pounding score – are ripped as much from the industrial music scene as from that movement’s punk sibling, while its story is focused on a merger less between man and machine than between man and the materiality of metal itself.
Granted that any attempt to reconstruct the plot of so highly mannered, deeply irrational and desultorily impressionistic a film must be partial and speculative, the story goes something like this. Following a traumatic childhood encounter that left him with a fragment of iron embedded in his brain, a strange, isolated man (played by Tsukamoto himself) has become a ‘metal fetishist’, inserting old pipes and rusty wires into his increasingly ravaged body in the hope of ushering in a ‘New World’ where the ‘future is metal’. When he is accidentally hit by the car of a suited salaryman (Taguchi Tomorowo) and his girlfriend (Fujiwara Kei, who also helped Tsukamoto with the cinematography), the lovers dump his body in the woods before proceeding to have passionate sex against a tree there.
Yet the collision sets off a chain of uncanny events, as the salaryman is first attacked (in his dreams?) by a female commuter (Kanaoka Nobu) who has been possessed by the fetishist, and thereafter penetrated anally (again in a dream?) by the snaking metal dildo sported by his girlfriend, and then begins himself to metamorphose into a monstrous metal hybrid, tearing apart his girlfriend with the giant rotating drill that has replaced his penis. Finally the fetishist returns (armed with a bouquet of flowers) to face the salaryman in a punishing wrangle, half epic half erotic, of iron on stainless steel.
Tetsuo may combine the monochrome industrial landscapes of early David Lynch, the body horror of David Cronenberg, the obsession with crashes and wounds of novelist J G Ballard, and the frenetic stop-motion oddity (and staccato editing) of Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer, but it nonetheless remains a singular monstrosity, the likes of which could only come from the mind of Tsukamoto. All the key motifs of the Japanese director’s later films (like Tokyo Fist, Gemini, A Snake of June and Vital) are present and correct in embryonic form here, from physical transformation and the transgression of personal identity, to the violent expression of repressed anger and desire, to the sadomasochistic power relations between men and women (expressed through the dynamics of a bizarre love triangle).
It remains unclear whether the fetishist is the salaryman’s vengeful persecutor, his unleashed id, his lost twin or his persistent lover, but the film’s vision of creation and destruction as coexisting drives within the steely heart of man has lost none of its arresting force over the years – or been outdone by Tsukamoto’s two sequels. “Our love”, the salaryman declares near the film’s end, “can destroy this whole fucking world! Get ’em!” – and as, transformed into a giant phallic vehicle of ruin, he advances on Tokyo, we are left to wonder whether this colossal signifier of rampant masculinity heralds an apocalyptic end, or a new beginning. Certainly, though, Tetsuo introduced a multi-talented and idiosyncratic filmmaker to the international stage, marking and marring viewers with its unforgettable, at times impenetrable imagery.