Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Shinya Tsukumoto DVD Reviews

Calum Syers, writer and blogger has contributed his reviews of the latest Blue Ray DVD offerings from Third Window Films.
Please see Calum's blog for more of his work: http://laurelleafcinema.blogspot.co.uk/

Tetsuo: The Iron Man
It is not often that a film opens with a man cutting a large gash into his own thigh only to stick a large metal rod into the wound, but when it does happen you know you are in for something original, to say the least. One thing that can be said about director Shinya Tsukumoto, is that he does not do things by halves. As the man (credited as "Metal Fetishist", played by Tsukumoto) sees his wound has been infested with maggots he runs out into the street only to be hit by a car. The car's driver, a Japanese business man (Tomorowo Taguchi), and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara), figure their best solution is to dump the still living man in the woods and have sex in front of him, as you do. As punishment, the metal fetishist forces the businessman's body to gradually transform into a working pile of metal.

With gloriously inky black and white photography and an uncompromising take on the body horror sub-genre of horror cinema, it is easy to see why Tetsuo: The Iron Man has become so beloved among cult circles. Like a lot of science-fiction and horror which these days would be described as "cyber-punk", Tetsuo: The Iron Man acknowledges the post industrial, post-modern, technologically advanced world. It also acknowledges that with such advancements comes the fetishisation of such industrial advances to the point where it becomes lustful, making the eventual metamorphosis ironic. Machine and flesh become one and the more our lives are integrated with such technological advancements, the more we allow it to become us, making the outward transformation a reflection of peoples' inner need for industry. Like David Cronenberg’s Videidrome, Tsukumoto shows the integration of technology into our lives is here made to be a literal metamorphosis, where flesh and machine become one and the same. 

Although, while all this may be true, I may be giving too much credit to audiences who just came to see a man's penis transform into a gigantic power drill, which is the image I am left with after watching this movie. 

As a piece of visual story telling, the film is relentless, using high contrast black-and-white to tell its story, instead of dialogue, which there is very little of throughout the sixty-seven minute running time. Such a pulpy visual style allows the film to have a distinctive aesthetic, and Tsukumoto's use of close ups allows us to see even the tiniest of details, such as sweat on a character's face. Comparatively speaking, Tetsuo: The Iron Man’s visual style and use of sound is not dissimilar to the early work of David Lynch, especially considering both favour disturbing, nightmarish, black and white visuals. Perhaps what is most impressive about the film's visuals is that they show just how lacking in boundaries filmmaking can be and that incredibly violent or disturbing imagery can be intellectually important. 

Structurally, the film is somewhat of a mess, with nothing more than a handful of vignettes making up its brief running. It is because of this that the film does not quite live up its reputation as a cult classic, and falls just short of the mark. It also rushes a little too quickly from scene to scene, which on one hand is a good thing, since it moves too quickly for you to question the film's logic, but on the other hand, means that it is hard to allow the film to really connect. Although, having said that, regardless of whether the really work as a cohesive whole is almost irrelevant; especially if you do not look at it too seriously, especially when the film's greatest punch is in its visuals. Besides, long after details of the plot have been forgotten, people will remember this film, whether it be for its metaphoric, cyberpunk  body metamorphosis or simply for its distinct visuals.

In conclusion, while I believe this to believe this to be a worthy entry into the cyberpunk sub-genre of science-fiction and horror, and deserving of its reputation. It falls just short of being a cult classic due to it lacking details in its plotting, structure and character motivation, but it is shockingly original and full-blooded. However, it is easy to see how its relentless visuals have inspired a generation of filmmakers, both in Japan and in the West, since there is nothing else like it and is such a crazy ride. Where it succeeds, other than with its visuals, is how it handles the transformation from man to a machine. While this is a well worn trope, it is handled with incredible imagination and with fantastic make-up and costume designs to make it look convincing.


Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, Shinya Tsukamoto’s sequel to his cult beloved film, Tetsuo: The Iron Man,  opens with a man being shot in the street by a man named Yatsu (Tsukamoto), who extends his arm as if it were a gun, and fires the shot from his hand. As openings go, it is not quite as heavy going as the opening for the first movie but it does give you an idea of the film’s tone.

Tomorowow Taguchi, who played the lead in the first movie, plays Taniguchi Tomoo, a man who is has no memories of his life before he was adopted at the age of eight. As he, his wife, Kana (Nobu Kanaoka) and his son, Minori (Keinoske Tomioka) are walking through a shopping mall, a pair of skinhead thugs forcibly inject Taniguchi with something, try to kill him and attempt to kidnap his son. Luckily, he is rescued by Kana and the child remains unharmed. When his son is, once again, taken and Taniguchi is, once again, attacked, his rage consumes him and he turns into something resembling a human weapon, similar to the power shared by Yatsu.

There are two things which are immediately apparent about Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. The first is, despite the “II” in the title, this is as much of a sequel as Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is a sequel, by which I mean it is not. Instead, everyone involved seems to have started again and remade the first film with a much higher budget and better visual effects. The second thing which is apparent, despite still being about a man changing from a mild mannered weakling into a metal warrior, there seems to be a conscious effort to make a more marketable film. For one, it is shot in colour, and was shot in 35mm film stock, both of which seem to be geared towards making the film more accessible for general audiences. Also, this film is focused more on action whereas the first film concerned itself more with grungy body horror. 

It is not only in style where things are more conventional, since its plotting has a clearer, more conventional, beginning-middle-end style structure. Even the film’s characterisation leans towards the typical.
This loss of the former film's roughness and experimentation makes the film far less interesting than its predecessor, and unfortunately, with the loss of the experimentation, comes far less interesting sound and visuals. In addition, unlike James Cameron's Aliens and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, the tonal shift from horror to action is a little jarring and does not work as well with this franchise.

 Having said that, there is still plenty to recommend. There are some fantastic pieces of production design, such as the skinheads' hideout, which is gigantic industrial area with various pieces of machinery spitting out sparks and molten metal. While the visuals are not as nearly as strange or imaginative as the previous film's, it still has its own style, relying heavily on red and blue filters, for creating mood. 

Perhaps the best thing about the film is how it looks at a metropolitan city like Tokyo. Tsukamoto is known for having a love-hate relationship with Tokyo, and is quoted as saying, "It's strange. Part of me loves a city like Tokyo, but part of me would quite happily destroy it." And, true to form, the final shots of the film are of Tokyo in ruin as Taniguchi, Kana and Minori look on with a peaceful, even happy look on their faces. Before that, the city is shown as being sterile and made of nothing but steel and glass, which has a strong contrast with the scenes set in the bad guys' lair, or an abandoned factory where Taniguchi and Yatsu fight at one point during the film. Whereas the first movie used its main character turning into metal as a way to prod at the reliance on the expansion of industry, this film makes the same point, but expands its gaze out to the city, where reliance on technology and industry cannot be ignored.

In conclusion, while the film is certainly weaker than the original, it is not completely without merit. Shinya Tsukamoto directs action with a deftness, but without the spark and imagination that he did horror, and overall the film feels as if it is compromised and polished to make it acceptable to general audiences. 


Japanese auteur, and cult favourite director, Shinya Tsukamoto’s latest film is at once brutal,  frustrating, distressing, and, at times a little touching. Tsukamoto directs with a realistic eye, favouring handheld camera work and naturalistic lighting which is uncharacteristic of his former work, which was often more stylised. Kotoko, the protagonist, is played by singer-songwriter Cocco in her debut acting role, and as well as playing the film's lead, she is credited as a co-author on the script, writing and performing the music and providing art direction.

Kotoko is a single mother who lives alone with her child. She is tormented by terrifying visions and often sees doubles of the people she meets in her day to day life, who are almost always hostile and threaten either her or her child. Her only escape from such horrific hallucinations comes when she sings and when she cuts herself, which she does not do in an attempt to commit suicide, but to confirm to herself  the body’s willingness to survive. Her condition is only made worse by her child’s constant crying and by her TV, which constantly blurts out horrific news about a masked knifeman who is on the loose. As her mental state continues to deteriorate, she is deemed unfit to raise a child and her son is taken out from her and is sent to stay with her sister who lives in the country with her family. As Kotoko tries to create a normal life for herself, she meets a man named Tanaka (Tsukamoto), who admits to her that he has been stalking her and the two form a strange, almost masochistic relationship. 

Perhaps what is most interesting about Kotoko is Cocco's performance and influence over the film. It is an unbearably intense and tragic portrayal of a woman losing her mind, and she absolutely convinces during the scenes where she starts to see things that may or may not be there. To people who are not aware of her career as a musician, they may be surprised that this is her debut performance. Luckily, Tsukamoto gives her free rein, allowing her scenes to play out in front of the camera with seemingly little restraint. At times, the camera is fixed on her for several minutes at a time as she sings or dances and as her voice and dance steps become more primal and erratic. In scenes such as this, she is utterly captivating,  showing just how terrifyingly fractured her mind has become.

Although, I should make it clear, Cocco's performance, while defiantly central, does not overshadow Tsukamoto's filmmaking, and instead feels like a partnership between the two. As well as directing and co-scripting the film, Tsukamoto is also the film's producer, editor and is one of two directors of photography, along with Satoshi Hayashi. Technically it is an extremely competent piece of work with the star's art direction and the director's photography meshing seamlessly. At no point is this more true than the scenes in Kotoko's apartment, which are designed and shot impeccably and use coloured lights well to symbolise her growing insanity. 

Unfortunately, one of its greatest strengths can also be seen as a weakness, in terms of story telling. As we see the world from Kotoko's point-of-view, it means questions are never really answered. Paradoxically, one of the greatest strengths of the film is that it uses its vagueness to keep us guessing. Eventually, it gets to the point where we simply do not know whether what we are seeing is a fantasy or a reality.

The film does not pretend to be a searing look into a particular mental illness, but in terms exploring madness and psychological horror, it is very sharp. From its opening frame it grabs you by the short hairs, keeping you wriggling in discomfort until it ends. Shinya Tsukamoto, in terms of style, is often mentioned in the same breath as David Cronenberg due to their use of "body horror", so it is nice to see him apply the same intensity to horror of the mind

Thanks to Calum Syers for these excellent reviews.

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