It’s difficult to know where to start when it comes to discussing Tetsuo: The Iron Man. This is a bizarre, low-budget, avent-grade cyberpunk horror film that bends the medium of film to its will to create a frantic, charged and inherently political discussion on transhumanism and identity.
It also features a main character whose penis turns into a rotating drill. There’s a lot to unpack here.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man opens on a scene featuring an unnamed ‘metal fetishist’ creating a large open wound on his leg in order to insert a lengthy metal rod into the exposed flesh and muscle. This doesn’t go as planned and maggots soon swarm around the open flesh and muscle, sending the man insane as he flees from his warehouse into the street, where he’s run over be a salaryman and his girlfriend. They dispose of the body but are haunted by his existence as the body of the salaryman begins to metamorphose into a living, breathing fusion of human and scrap metal.
It’s not a film for the faint of heart, with the graphic body horror that defines this film and earned it its reputation only gets progressively more extreme as the film goes on. It’s an assault on decency from almost every angle, where the unsettling visuals, only emphasized by the film’s claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio and the grain caused by its creation on 16mm film, uncomfortable soundtrack and its blend of the familiar world with unfamiliar elements as the entire world becomes consumed in a crazed frenzy and characters appear less and less human.
It’s all well and good, but it begs the question: why watch it? What about a film that’s clearly designed to be as confrontational as possible as each aspect of it assaults the mind, makes it something you should seek out and watch?
For me, there are two reasons why this film should be added to your halloween watchlist. The first is purely entertainment. Just as this film seeks to confront the viewer and assault their senses with a visual style and extreme content designed to make them uncomfortable, it’s at the same time so visually interesting that it’s almost impossible to look away from.
The film uses the limitations placed upon it by the movie’s low budget and limited format to enhance what we see on screen. By keeping to the compressed 4:3 framing of the film, you’re left unable to move your gaze away from the rapid transformations and loss of humanity at the behest of metal and machine, which is accented further by the choice to shoot the film in black and white. This exaggerates the sheen coming off the metal in each shot while turning even welcoming Japanese suburbs into something imposing and dangerous, even a threat.
Indoor scenes, such as in the salaryman’s house or the warehouses which are also highly constrained and filled with deep shadows, contradict Japan’s status as a futuristic paradise that it held at the time due to its economy and technology, transforming it into something off-putting.
This is before discussing Tsukamoto’s tendency to push the boat out on experimental effects as a way of circumventing his tight budget, such as through stop-motion scenes for transformations or simply distorting the image for dramatic effect. Although you can see where the film was inspired by the likes of James Cameron’s Terminator and Akira, it comes together for something unlike anything you’ll witness in the genre.
While visually the film is filled with unique imagery and effects and filled with the creativity of a man determined to see his vision through despite a grueling production and small budget, the film is relatively light and otherwise obtuse with its story. The metal fetishist is out for revenge against the salaryman who himself is becoming like him and transforming into a metallic mutant. The film may be light on story, but the way its imagery and content comes together leaves the viewer with a lot to ponder after the credits have rolled.
Years before modern films and TV series or even the slew of 90s and early 2000s J-Horror films like Ring and Pulse tackled humanity’s relationship and growing reliance on technology, Tetsuo: The Iron Man delved deep into the transformation of human life by machinery, warning how it could cause us to lose sight of what makes us human.
Whether by choice, like we see the metal fetishist gleefully shift his body and relish in his new existence, or against his will, as we witness with the salaryman’s transformation, the film ultimately has a negative view on humanity’s reliance on technology. Such machinery transforms humans beyond recognition and rejects biology and human nature for the advancement of machinery over the bettering of the self.
This couldn’t be clearer than the infamous aforementioned scene, where the salaryman starts making out with his girlfriend before being interrupted by his body further transforming, his penis morphing into an electric drill.
Not only is the evolution of the human race into a hybrid species inevitable according to the events of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, inescapable in fact, it’s precisely this notion that makes the film so terrifying and the events within it so exhilarating. According to Tsukamoto, this evolution would leave you trapped. Personally, I see transhumanism as a benefit to humanity and not a threat, improving human agency and advancing society in rejection of the ideas that play out over the 70 minute run time of the film.
Still, through the framing, the black-and-white cinematography and content, it makes a compelling case for this opposing view.
Yet even as someone who disagrees with the direction of the film on this front, I’m left in awe at everything that has been achieved here. In fact, this disagreement between my beliefs and the film I feel serve to only further open up the discussion on how our relationship with technology could and should play out over the next 50 years or longer. And these ideas were all discussed in a zero-budget extreme horror film that still feels ahead of its time even 30 years later.
If you want a horror film this Halloween that will leave you both disgusted and contemplative long after the credits have finished rolling, you can’t go wrong with Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
Or you can watch it for the penis drill, your choice.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is available in the US via Arrow Video on Blu Ray and digital storefronts, and Third Window Films in the UK.