Many films can be bizarre and abstract but few films truly capture the feeling of being in a living nightmare quite so well as Tetsuo: The Iron Man. However, what may seem to more casual viewers like a series of disturbing black and white images simply meant to take you on an insane visual journey, is in reality a film with a strong narrative thread connecting the central characters to a single traumatic event.
Opening on a desolate industrial landscape, reminiscent of David Lynch’s surreal masterpiece Eraserhead, the film begins with an unknown man gruesomely inserting a metal rod into his leg. Shortly after doing so however he freaks out and runs screaming into the street. The film then follows an ordinary businessman (Tomorowo Taguchi, whose character is bizarrely listed in the credits as ‘Salaryman’), as he unwillingly embarks on a hellish journey in which his body begins to turn from flesh to metal following a horrifying encounter in the subway.
With a running time of a mere 67 minutes, barely qualifying as a feature, writer/director Shin’ya Tsukamoto packs an amazing amount into this dark, disturbing and utterly amazing film. The metal itself is fascinating, presenting to the characters like rusty junk-metal tumors protruding from their skin rather than some kind of sleek cybernetic enhancement. The Salaryman also feels like an authentic tortured soul, a classic movie monster cursed by a physical transformation he can’t control that threatens to destroy everything in his life.
This is tied into what is perhaps the most central theme in the film itself which is the melding of sexuality and metal-related violence. This is a running theme throughout (giant drill-cock anyone?) but rather than being an exercise in gratuitous perversion it is deftly tied back to the central narrative event making it an integral part of the story. This is also a key example of how Tsukamoto interweaves flashbacks with the disintegrating reality of the present to give us a story that is fast-paced and frenetic while at the same time nuanced and complex.
While the film is certainly groundbreaking it just doesn’t quite reach the five star level for me of films that have deep, emotionally complex acting and a rich, polished visual style that reflects a high level of quality filmmaking regardless of the budget. But make no mistake, the gritty visuals, high-contrast lighting, stop-motion animation and lightning quick edits make this a horrifying journey into a surreal nightmare that simply must be experienced to be believed. Overall, highly recommended.