We’re back for a new Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, and this month we’re navigating the gritty, grimy world of live-action Japanese cyberpunk with perhaps the quintessential example of the subgenre, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man. This 1989 film is one of the more high-intensity, visceral experiences ever put to celluloid, so I’m thankful to have guest Dani Bethea to guide me through it.
Bethea has one of the best minds in horror journalism today. Formerly the editor-in-chief for the We Are Horror zine, you may have seen their work at cinéSPEAK, Studies in the Fantastic, and the Transploitation Project. You can also catch them in the upcoming documentary Mental Health and Horror and read some really fascinating long-form pieces via their Medium blog.
Bethea had a number of great movie recommendations, but Tetsuo is one I’ve been eyeing up for quite some time. So, I figured this would be a good opportunity to take the plunge when I had someone to unpack it with afterward.
Where to even start with a synopsis: first, the usual Spoiler Warning, as I’m going to reveal a lot of plot points up front. Second, for those looking to check out the movie, be warned that there are content and trigger warnings for sexual violence, domestic violence, and all manner of extreme body horror.
With that, here we go: a man known only as Metal Fetishist (Tsukamoto) is seen in the film’s opening sequence cutting his leg open and inserting a large metal pipe into it. When he later finds the wound infested with maggots, he frantically runs into the street, where he is hit by a car. Cut to a short time later, when a Salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) and his Girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara) are tormented by someone who starts manipulating the Salaryman’s body, melding it with metal and controlling him into attacking his Girlfriend.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out to be the Metal Fetishist seeking his revenge on both the Salaryman and his Girlfriend as they were the ones who hit him with their car, only to dump his body in the woods, taking a quick sex break (I’m not kidding) before leaving him for dead. The Girlfriend kills herself after a confrontation with the increasingly metallic and erratic Salaryman, and soon the Metal Fetishist attacks as the two collide in a city-spanning battle that leaves them morphed into a single, metallic, globular mass bent on turning the world into their own robotic image.
Given what I’d heard about Tetsuo, and knowing that Tsukamoto took inspiration from filmmakers like Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, I thought I’d either really dig it or end up scratching my head as the credits rolled. It turns out these did not need to be mutually exclusive outcomes, as I may not have understood everything I was seeing, but damned if it wasn’t a worthwhile experience. Of course, I was curious about how it first popped up on Bethea’s radar.
It was probably in the ’90s or early 2000s when I first heard about it, and I was like, “This sounds really interesting.” And this is obviously before the advent of YouTube, so you kind of just had to go off word of mouth.
So, in the ’90s and early 2000s I'd heard about it, but I think it was only probably in the later 2000s that I could get it online. Sometimes you hear about a piece of horror history and then you just have to wait. We are of that generation where it was just like, “Well, I guess we have to wait,” especially with a lot of international horror movies. I'm sure there are people who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who could get maybe a VHS or a rough print or something like that. But as far as Americans are concerned, I really don't know if it was in your video stores, like Blockbusters or rental stores. It's so niche.
When they finally did catch it, however, it was definitely a memorable experience.
I was bowled over by a mixture of the frenetic pace and the body horror. The way it was shot was just incredible, honestly, and it pinged for me that so many other films have copied, or at least have attempted this same exact camerawork. The angles, the push and pull zoom with the camera, it really gave me Evil Dead vibes but cranked up to eleven.
I spotted quite a few influences as well, including Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, and of course Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. But Bethea also points out that Tetsuo has a lot in common with another Japanese import, and one that also dwells in the land of cyberpunk, if not with a slightly different flavor.
What's interesting is Akira, the anime of the manga, came out actually I think the same year, either just before or after Tetsuo: the Iron Man. So, it's interesting that there are a lot of visual parallels, especially in terms of the body horror elements. The fact that the human body can become this reworked, globulus thing, be it flesh, metal, or something in between. It's interesting that those two films, even though they're obviously different, one’s animated and one’s a live-action, that they were doing some very similar horror-type stuff. Body horror is always going to be one of those things that has sort of a universal echo.
Bethea explains that as a kid, anime provided them with an easier gateway into cyberpunk themes than the more underground films like Tetsuo.
I would say probably more of my influence is anime and manga-based, like Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop. Your tent poles, your classics. Which are probably a little bit more accessible as a ’90s kid. Obviously, we had tons of bookstores, so you could just go to the big anime/manga/comic book section, flip open a book, and boom there it is. Also give a shout-out to Toonami and Adult Swim, that was kind of a great gateway that could lead you down the rabbit hole of other things. Plus, a lot of us in those communities would talk and share a whole bunch of different things, so that was one of my first gateways. And then I probably say from there, they made me really intrigued about what else is out there film-wise.
Apart from the obvious differences in medium (i.e., animated versus live-action), films like Akira approached cyberpunk from a different angle, one that Bethea notes is a bit more optimistic.
[Anime leans more into] the visual aesthetics of a neo-Tokyo tech future. Post the boom of the ’80s and the crash in the ’90s, Japan had this ripple effect with a lot of the media that was trying to envision something less bleak. So, I noticed a lot of the animes and mangas that were coming out were set in a far, far future that was past a lot of the economic collapse, a lot of the job loss. So, it's very interesting that all of them kind of had that tether in that way, that they were kind of envisioning… maybe not a perfect future, but definitely one that was far from the dire time and situation that they were dealing with.
In Tetsuo, however, Tsukamoto isn’t afraid to fester in the anxiety and stress stemming from the economic crisis. He envisions a world where human beings are literally transitioning into machines.
It’s interesting that the main character is the Salaryman. [Capitalism] is still being grappled with today in Japan at large, that idea of literally living to work is no way to live. You're literally just a cog in a machine, and you're replaceable. That's still kind of being unpacked in society at large, which interestingly enough young people are rebelling against. [We’re not just seeing this kind of pushback] in America, it's worldwide.
While anime films often take a sleeker, more fantastical approach, Tsukamoto’s vision for Tetsuo is a lot more grungy. There’s certainly a practical element at play, as Tsukamoto was working on a tiny budget, but there’s also a deliberate aesthetic, starting with the decision to shoot in black and white. Bethea compares this decision to another subversive director from Tsukamoto’s era, one much more likely to be recognized by American audiences.
In many ways black and white gives it a timeless quality. I know a lot of people use that as a shorthand, but it's interesting that there are other films such as They Live, by John Carpenter, that were also periodically in black and white. The way that those images in the visuals just pop, even more so then when people recolored the visuals of the aliens out of that black and white. Color makes it look kind of goofy and it doesn't read as well, so I think that there's something to be said about challenging the visual aesthetic of what we're used to. I think it would be really interesting if there were more horror films in this modern age with all the technology we have, to make more films in black and white to see what you can get away with from a visual or narrative perspective.
In terms of the narrative, those looking for a linear structure will likely be disappointed, as Tetsuo is more about getting lost in the experience. I used to struggle with films like this when I was younger, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I need less narrative hand holding. For Bethea, unpredictability is part of the draw of the genre.
Once I'm at home with either the tone or whatever the director wants as far as the feel, I just kind of relax and see what they have in store for me. Another thing I love about the horror and the sci-fi genre is that it's kind of like animation in that you never know what the next scene is going to be, what the next sound is going to be, what the next visual is going to be. So, it's just a grab bag. And I think it's really neat that they're not linear, or that you can't just figure out what's going to happen next. You can't forecast the entire movie.
The soundtrack also plays a significant role in allowing the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the film, with a techno-industrial sound that mirrors the steely, piston-like vibe of the film. And as Bethea points out, not only is the music crucial, but so is the sound design.
The sound design was incredible. A lot of the things wouldn't hit as hard or read in the same way. It's amazing, that marriage of sound and visual with this film. And it's used to great effect where whenever there's something splattering or a particular sound, the sound actually helps sell the visual. It's really just kind of a testament that all of the things have to be right. You can have an amazing visual film, but if the soundtrack doesn't work or if the SFX team behind it doesn't really sell that audio component, it isn’t going to read as well.
Another highlight of the film is its use of stop-motion, which was not only leveraged for some of the more memorable body horror transitions, but also in some of the most unique, kinetic sequences I’ve ever seen as characters zoom through the streets of Tokyo. It’s such a jarring, effective sequence, especially when you consider how hard it must have been to pull off.
It also makes me think about how much of the film is actually quite desolate, and actually quite minimalistic as far as other humans being around because of that element, because of the shooting process. Maybe now they could probably add some people in digitally, but yeah, they probably did have a ton of closed sets. So, they literally frame by frame, shutter by shutter… and I can imagine there was probably not just a big camera, but I'm sure probably a lot of handheld going on, maybe even some traditional photography to marry all of this stuff together. I'm sure it was a very painstaking process.
But while we can appreciate a film that takes bold swings aesthetically, what separates Tetsuo is that it’s not just a hollow exercise. There’s a lot to unpack in the film, with discussions of class, gender dynamics, and even some queer elements swirling into an exploration about how humanity is changing in the face of technological advances. What’s more, as Bethea notes, Tsukamoto doesn’t have a definitive answer as to whether or not this change is necessarily a bad thing.
[Tetsuo] is this really interesting tale, not just body horror, but also maybe even starting to veer into what is going to happen to humanity once we become more involved with this technological future. What will happen to the mind? What will happen to the body? It seemed like the director in some different ways was trying to work out, do I love or do I loathe this new tech future?
Are we losing a lot of our humanity? Are we literally becoming inhuman cyborgs or machines? Or is it possible that we can become something else altogether? And if we become something else, is that good? Is that bad? Does that make us villainous or a “monster” in the traditional sense? And if we become a monster… cool, right? What is the new monster? I think this is one of the first times that I could recall seeing a horror monster be this metal-human hybrid-type thing. We've had our Frankenstein’s monsters, we've had our Incredible Melting Man, we've had Brundlefly. We’ve had so many different ways that science can go awry, but this was the first that I could recall like, “Yikes, what if metal was the substance or the object that fueled the horror?”
Tsukamoto made two sequels to Tetsuo, and many who worked on the film went on to create their own contributions to Japanese cyberpunk (see Perry Ruhland’s fantastic piece on Sozin Fukui). And Tsukamoto’s work has influenced even mainstream American films, as Bethea points out the gleefully cyberpunk elements to the Doctor Octopus hospital massacre in Spider-Man 2.
But while the film’s influence is hard to deny, Bethea praises it as a singular work whose spirit is hard to truly duplicate today.
It was just one of the wildest premises that I’ve ever thought about. This was another unique way to have a viral infection or plague story, just in a really abstract kind of way. Just working on so many different levels of horror, and you can unpack it in so many different ways.