The following article was published in N-SPHERE July 2011 issue.

Amongst cult circles, Shinya Tsukamoto may be a hero of sorts. Although, throughout his career, he made a share of fairly accessible films, he is known for the more “unfriendly ones”.

Tsukamoto started making films at the age of 14, but it wasn’t until 1988 that he achieved notoriety with Tetsuo: The Iron Man. A very graphic yet striking fantasy revolving around the collision between man and post-industrial technology – also coined with Japanese cyberpunk -  the movie is somewhat reminiscent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead by means of decomposed narrative and a very disturbing atmosphere, but while Eraserhead retains some familiarity, Tetsuo‘s moments of coherence remain linked with the mood it creates rather than what happens in the film. After all, how can one explain how someone’s body is turning gradually into metal after his encounter with a metal… “fetishist”? And why would one do that, since in film the “how”-s in many occasions are more important than the “why”-s. There is a hint of an industrialized Metropolis (Fritz Lang), there is a strong sense of repulsion or revolt towards the mechanical society of earnings-collecting ants (many of Tsukamoto‘s protagonists are as such), there is even an eerie kind of logic that follows the maddening succession of images all of them sustained by the seemingly absurd premise of the film. There are some ridiculous moments and lines, as well, but they seem somewhat deliberate as some ugly mirror-images of real actions.

In Tetsuo, Shinya Tsukamoto creates a nightmare world, comes up with stories impossible to believe and yet, at the heart of such stories, lie frighteningly real human emotions. And here, there is another link with a modern director, David Cronenberg, who used the same strategy in his earlier films (The Brood, for example). But where Cronenberg still retains a narrative sense, Tsukamoto is mostly focused on the mutations themselves and on their relationships with the characters.


In its early days, industrial (the music genre) was harsh, abrasive, disturbing and somewhat repetitive or obsessive (you can choose the term that you think fits better). There was a desire to tear apart preconceptions about how music should sound like, there was the use of technology to create something that is ultimately primitive, savage, in complete opposition to what technology would represent. Ultimately, it was transgressive.

If we are to look at the film, we can observe it holds pretty much of the same characteristics and the more we think about it, the clearer they are, because we see a reason behind them.

First of all, we are talking about Japan, a country in which technology plays a large part of daily living so it is easy to deduct that people may ask themselves one day whether it did not become an extension of the human nature, because not only that people use it every day, but they seem to get more and more mechanical, they seem to want to embrace a mechanical life-style. So, therefore, the next easy question is what happens when those boundaries between humanity and technology vanish. Of course, it is not the first time one hears this question; it isn’t, by any means, a new idea in art, but in few cases, broken boundaries meant literally broken boundaries. And so, we uncover another aspect.

While this may seem a second-rate argument, Japan was the target of two nuclear bombardments so there is no wonder that they retained a more sensible and careful eye to whatever involves physical mutations.

In the wake of these aspects, Tetsuo‘s approach may not be entirely predicable, but necessary.

Also, there is another ground where things are laid upon, and this one is connected to other of Shinya Tsukamoto‘s films, Tokyo Fist especially. The reason behind these series of mutations is also related to what those mutations mirror when it comes to inter-personal relationships. Generally, Tsukamoto‘s protagonists are humble, half-mechanical employees, “ants” trapped inside an unrewarding system. Occasionally, they try to glance at the world outside and eventually abandon their routine, but soon they find themselves unable to have real and workable interactions with other people, except the ones imposed by the system (they are trapped in and ironically fuel day by day), or try to cope with what is around them. And they fail, or they fall victims to horrifying circumstances. Then it all comes: guilt, anger, repression… Especially anger. And here there is a little to talk about, because anger is a common presence in the Japanese cinema, no matter if we are talking about poltergeist, action or horror flicks – anger is in almost every case unmistakably present.

Having said all these, we return a little to David Cronenberg and one of his earlier films called The Brood. There the anger in a woman was a source of summoning fiendish, children-shaped presences/entities (I refuse to call them children, for they were not children, the just looked like children, creepy children). Tsukamoto walks the same road. It is not only the technology as an extension, but it is also the cripple inside. In Tokyo Fist this is seen a lot better in one of its closing scenes: a failed couple disfiguring one another as a mirror-image not only to their relationship itself, but to each of themselves individually and also to the way their relationship deteriorated. And it is another “tradition” in Japanese cinema to have characters holding their calm for long periods of time and then bursting into extreme violence: it is either one or the other, no middle ground.  But middle ground has its role, it shows you can control the rage, or try to control the rage, it show that it is coming, or it will come from you, in the end, it offers a continuous image. Its absence splits the subject in two, and that is why in all those mutations in Tetsuo you can see a man, as if he is looking from the inside, as if he lives there, as if those pieces of metal are inhabited by him. It is an act of possession and it is very common in people who received a very strict, but inconsistent education, by means that they were told, ordered what to do, there was an instance/person that made sure they are doing what they are told, they were given hypocrite and shallow explanations, but no real insight. So this repression grew something in them, but, because they were unable to show it, they fed it day by day with angry thoughts, fantasies of escaping, taking revenge, unleashing hell on earth or anything else related, and that “something” laid dormant, until it was actually powerful enough to take control once in a while. It is like having someone locked in the floor below with only a cracked floor covering. Once that crack is big enough the trapped one may find his way out.

The same kind intensity describes the sexual act as well. Of course, in a sexual act, an involvement  of sorts is mandatory, and therefore intensity is present without saying. But here, the involvement is linked again with the primitive needs, with something that was long buried. And ultimately the sexual act is not performed by the partners themselves, but by their mutations, henceforth we don’t have “angry sex”, but the anger itself as the protagonist of the sexual act. It is also a collection of movements, nothing more, because behind all curtains lies only a great void, where one’s conscience used to be. The math here is fairly simple: in the man’s case, the conscience is mutated to eradication, and the entity exists for itself, it has no such thing as conscience or a soul, but only a form, therefore the transformation itself, the anger unleashed resolves nothing.

There is another interesting link with another David Cronenberg movie called Videodrome, in which we have the line “Long live the new flesh!” used there as a statement of liberation. Here, the new flesh exists, but it is only a vehicle from a cage to another.


“So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work.”

We are all familiar with »cyborgs«. We’ve been ever since we were children and we encountered films such as Terminator, for example. We might even deduce a traditional meaning and might even be right.

However, there is another look at the problem, one more deepened in our own existence, in our own selves, one that does not necessarily imply, but neither does it exclude implants, familiar physical extensions, but it is coined with things nearer to us, like the quote above. It is ultimately about escaping a preexistent pattern and accepting the final outcome, no matter how »against-the-stream it is«. And the enumeration can continue, but I guess you got the point.

Tetsuo revolves around nightmares, nightmarish transformations, mechanisms, repression and so forth, but if we are to take a step forward, we can hint that it is about acceptance as well. As I said before, there is no beautiful and ugly, outside our own perceptions and with or without metal limbs we remain who we are. Once we can accept our anger, our inner violence (creation is ultimately a violent act) we can learn how to master it, if we run from it it will chase us during our entire existence.

Inside, it may be as Donna Harraway suggested: that we are all cyborgs. We are not straightforward beings, we are not defined only by a set of unitary attributes. There are things placed somewhere outside, things that still define us, things we, sometimes instinctively, run away from and this is why we perceive them as ugly, repulsive (temptation unveiled is always depicted as ugly, and veiled as unearthly beautiful). Once we learn how to shatter the boundaries, we may evolve.


Tetsuo works better with no complex storyline to be wrapped in. This is why I overlooked the sequels, because they all find the roots here. They are better produced, but sadly, less effective, since only in an austere space the ideas behind it work best. The more detailed and crowded the space is, the less efective the material becomes. The first film is a take-it-or-leave-it ride, you either like it or you don’t, in the end there may not be many things you can criticize, because it barely has any common ground with other films and since criticism involves comparison, at least to a certain degree, this option is one foot out of the map.

The sequels both have stories and the problem is that they are not well developed enough to draw attention, but not vague enough to be ignored. Maybe they are best being seen just as a curiosity to see how some parts of the first film work on a better budget.
This is it from now, sweet metal dreams, children…

Quote: Donna Harraway. 1991. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century

Movie still: Tetsuo the Iron Man. 1988.

by Shade

Full article here.