Tetsuo — A ride to movie hell

by Rüdiger Brandis

I am a big fan of Darren Aronofsky, although I have to admit that I haven’t seen his newest film Noah yet, because the trailers look like — to put it mildly — shit. A few years back, in an interview on some special edition DVD-Set, I heard him talk about his artistic influences and he mentioned the Japanese director Shin’ya Tsukamoto and his breakthrough movie Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Since then, I planned to watch this movie and now I finally came around doing it. So yeah, let me tell you about Tetsuo.

The movie opens with a man (Shin’ja Tsukamoto), who is only referred to as “the man” or “the metal fetishist”, implanting a large piece of scrap metal in his leg. His body rejects the object and the man goes crazy running out on the street. A passing businessman (Tomorowo Taguchi) hits him with his car and assuming that the metal fetishist is dead dumps his body in the woods together with his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara), who was also in the car. But the metal fetishist is still alive and begins to hunt the businessman, who is driven into madness as his body parts slowly turn into metal.

Right away: This movie confused the hell out of me. Constantly, I was wondering what was happening and why, while the movie rushed by frame after frame. But I was definitely trying too hard to find a deeper meaning which I expected because Aronofsky with his very complex visual style of storytelling put me up to watching this. I expected a masterpiece but as far as the story goes Tetsuo is just a confusing indie movie with elliptic storytelling which themes are heavy influenced by the cyberpunk subgenre. Because of this, I will split my observations in two overlapping parts, in which I will on the one hand focus mainly on the visuals and the style of filming while explaining on the other hand their importance for the narrative of the movie.

Tetsuo is a visual ride to hell. You could argue that the pictures itself — grainy black and white, small, impersonal apartments, subway stations, dirty roads, metal everywhere — depict a terrible future of loneliness in a world of metal mass consumption. But that would be only one aspect of Tetsuo. The real vision of its art style lays in the shaky camera, the fast cuts and the even faster stop motion animations. The pictures are constantly moving, changing, rushing around in your head. It’s a mesmerizing experience to an extent that it becomes devastating to watch, but the movie won’t let you turn away. You think the big finale in Requiem for a Dream was fast, think again. Tetsuo holds this pace nearly its whole running time of roughly 66 minutes in the original cut. The speed is even amplified by the soundtrack: a mixture out of electronic noises and mechanical sounds, similar to German industrial music of the 1970s. This sound sphere puts you in constant stress, pushes you back in your seat, while you watch the painful process of metal transformation the main protagonist undergoes.

City symphonies and cyberpunk

But so unique Tetsuo looks at a first glance, you can hardly overlook its influences. The repetitive deformation sequences of the businessman — metal piercing through his body, machines rotating, their beat shattering the walls of his normal behaviour, replacing it with mechanical movements, even amplifying his terror over his transformation — these sequences link back to the art style of the city symphony movies of the 1920s and the narratives of cyberpunk. The fast cuts and the focus on machinery recall Walter Ruttmanns pictures in Berlin, Symphony of a Great City. Ruttmann itself was clearly influenced by Russian constructivism and especially Dziga Vertov. Vertovs film theory “kinoglaz” places the film maker in the role of the catcher of reality. Through the camera itself truth can be found and recorded. Finally, the cutting of the film material represents the reconstruction of this process of decoding. Both Ruttmann and Vertov used this in their own ways to create pictures of the modern metropolis.

(Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, 1927, min 01:05) (Man with a movie camera, 1929, min 56:07)

But in contrast to their modernist euphoria (or at least optimism as you can argue that both filmmakers criticize aspects of the modern life), Tetsuo follows the dystopian premise of cyberpunk by displaying a world out of order, a world populated by mad people craving for the metal in their body, of lonely beings in search for contact, that in the end can only be achieved through the medium metal. Also, reversing Vertovs filmic approach, Tsukamoto enslaves his protagonists by his film mechanics. The stop-motion animation of the main protagonist transformation into a being out of metal feels like a relentless force the characters never had a chance to escape. Tetsuo inverts the modernist zeitgeist of machines as symbol of progress into its opposite.

In the end

Despite all these visual bonds the basic story of Tetsuo is fairly simple. It focuses on the relationship between the businessman, his girlfriend and the metal fetishist and their process of being consumed by metal either literally or the accompanying effects of madness. It serves as platform for the grainy presentation of a world where humans lost the connection to each other and are desperate for human contact.

And aside from all that, Tetsuo simply consists of a lot of gore and disgusting images that are meant to disturb for the sake of disturbing. From this stand point, it’s a genre flick that stands at the intersection of horror and science fiction, of gore and art house. Its premise is simple, its elliptic storytelling leaves the viewer to guess its contents and its visuals push you over the edge of filmic conventions. This mixture makes a lot of fun and Tetsuo one hell of a ride, an ambitious avant-garde film, that deserves this term because it pushed the boundaries of what is visual thinkable in movies. For this Tetsuo and its creator Shin’ja Tsukamoto deserve a place in the movie hall of fame and earned a one in my (still a little bit disgusted and at the same time mesmerized) heart.

References:

Vertov, Dziga (director): Man with a movie camera, British Film Institute, London 2000.

Ruttmann, Walter (director): Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, Image Entertainment, Chatswort, California 1999.

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