Blu-ray Review: TETSUO: THE IRON MAN/TETSUO II: BODY HAMMER
Third Window's Blu-ray debut of Tsukamoto Shinya's breakout feature, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, has been one of my most anticipated titles of 2012 since we broke the news earlier this year. Tetsuo is a film that transcends its bizarre and hyperactive content to deliver one of the most aggressive experiences ever committed to 16mm celluloid. This is the film that, for better or worse, put Japanese experimental film on the map back in 1989 and in turn created a legend around Tsukamoto which he has been assertively living up to for the last 23 years.
Tetsuo is the story of a metal fetishist (Tsukamoto) and a businessman (Taguchi Tomorowo) who cross paths after an unfortunate accident in which the latter hits the former with his car. As a penalty for his digression, the businessman is infected with a metal bug by the fetishist which slowly turns him from a regular guy to the Iron Man of the title. What plot there is in the film in minimal, and is pretty much only extant in order to provide Tsukamoto room to flex his considerable creative muscle. The two ultimately engage in a lengthy battle for domination, which either both or neither win, depending on how you look at the thing.
The remarkable thing about Tetsuo is that this utterly bizarre, super kinetic experimental film was noticed at all among the din of independent films from all over the world. Tsukamoto's film announced the arrival of a distinctive voice in cinema that was, and still is, unlike anything out there. His definitive cyberpunk statement remains a trail by fire for experimental film fans to this day, and still manages to feel completely fresh and unique even though nearly a quarter of a century has gone by. The epileptic editing, the machine gun industrial music, the incredible practical effects, and the adoption of every camera trick in the book make Tetsuo more than just a weird little movie, but instead a veritable film school in a little under seventy minutes.
There is something about Tetsuo that allows it to continue to speak to the disenfranchised and misunderstood. It is more than simply the story of a man losing control of his body, it is the very construction of the film itself. Tetsuo is a marvel of individual determination. There is no doubt at any point in its brief run time that every ounce of Shinya Tsukamoto's blood, sweat, and tears are there on the screen. This is not a film that could've been made by anything other than an extremely passionate filmmaker with a chip on his shoulder. There is no concern for commercial appeal, no concern to appease investors, no coddling the viewer to make the story more palatable or understandable, there is simply Tetsuo, exactly as Tsukamoto envisioned it. Nothing more, nothing less. Tetsuo is the embodiment of artistic integrity and independence.
While there has never been another film quite like Tetsuo, Tsukamoto has been game for revisiting the character twice now. The first of those two ventures, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, is included in this set. Tetsuo II is no more a proper sequel to Tetsuo than Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn is a sequel to The Evil Dead. In fact, to further the analogy, Tetsuo II is more like a bigger budget remake of the original film that expands on some ideas, and looks in some alternative directions while still holding fast to many of the original's ideas. The result is a slightly more commercially viable feature, produced by a team of money men, but still firmly under the control of Tsukamoto.
The most obvious change from the first film to the second is the decision to shoot in color, whether this was a money matter or Tsukamoto's decision is unclear. In the intervening years, he's made films in a varying number of formats, from the recent color outbursts of Kotoko to the drab hues of films like A Snake of June, to the return to black & white of Bullet Ballet. However, Tsukamoto's experimentation with his color palette does this film well in helping to distinguish it from the first film. In addition to that obvious change, there is also the exponential increase in cast and crew, which goes from less than a dozen altogether on the first film to a couple dozen on the second, not including the numerous drones in the factory. These changes both help and hurt the film in different ways, but I found that Body Hammer is a much more entertaining film than I remember, even though it lacks the gut punch that its predecessor packs.
In Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, the protagonist returns, however, this time in a whole new story. Tomorowo Taguchi is a new metal fetishist, this time with a back-story and a family to care for. When his son is kidnapped and brutally destroyed by a nefarious gang bent on inciting rage in Taguchi's Yatsu, he goes on a ballistic bender, morphing himself into the ultimate weapon. Revenge will not be pretty as the gang is loaded for bear and has plans for Yatsu that the latter cannot possibly begin to predict. When these titans clash, no one can win.
What Tetsuo II may lack in adrenaline, it more than makes up for in scope as Tsukamoto takes advantage of his new surroundings adroitly. Body Hammer is definitely a film made to entertain, unlike The Iron Man, but in saying that, there's little indication here that Tsukamoto compromised his vision to make the film simply because he had investors to answer to. The film remains aggressively loud and unpleasant, but in a more polished way. I would venture to say that this sequel is easily the more easy to follow of the two, though it lacks a tiny bit of the spark of the first.
Comparing these two films is a tempting road to tread, however, I think that they are more dissimilar than meets the eye, both in terms of content and intent. With The Iron Man, Tsukamoto was working out his own demons, every frame of that film was crafted by hand and planned to the tiniest detail by the director, himself. With Body Hammer, he was given the small luxury of a crew beyond simply a camera man, men who knew how to get results in a way that was less play-it-by-ear, and more focused on results. Does this mean that Body Hammer is any less of a film than The Iron Man? No, in fact I think that the opposite is more likely true.
Tetsuo is a character that has become so iconic among the film underground that it is hard to compare any of Tsukamoto's other features, even his official sequels, to the original. No matter how many masterpieces Tsukamoto makes, and he's making more and more every year, he'll always be recognized as the man who created Tetsuo. Heavy is the head who wears that crown, but what a remarkable crown it is.
I don't know what I expected when I first heard that Tetsuo was coming to Blu-ray, but Third Window has done the film justice in every way. The transfers, approved and supervised by Tsukamoto, are very solid. The new HD transfer for Tetsuo: The Iron Man is particularly revelatory, showing the viewer gorgeous grain and every little imperfection of the source material. The image was never going to be spotless, but for a film like this, I think I'd be more upset if it were flawless than seeing it as it is. Tetsuo II is not quite as strong of a transfer, though there are moments of clear HD detail and the color, in this case, is the strongest upgrade. Both films feature very strong soundtracks, as well, with The Iron Man's propulsive soundtrack never having sounded better. It makes me want to punch everything, and I think that's the point.
Third Window have provided the extras for this set on a separate DVD, and while they aren't plentiful, what is there is stellar. First up is Tsukamoto's The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy, a clear precedent for the Tetsuo films, a forty five minute short (only twenty minutes less than the first Tetsuo film) in which a young man is teased simply because he has a power pole growing out of his back. The film plays more comedically than the Tetsuo films (is it possible to play less comedically than the Tetsuo films?), but shows the development of the ideas that would become Tetsuo: The Iron Man in only a couple of years. There is also a twenty minute interview with Tsukamoto in which he discusses all things Tetsuo, including his influences and ideas. It is always a joy to talk with filmmakers for whom the work is more than a job, and Tsukamoto is a man who lives and breathes art. If I had a wish to spend on this release, it would be to make the interview longer. The extras are rounded out by a few trailers, all of which can be found on YouTube, but it's nice to have them all in one place.
This is a no-brainer, in case you couldn't tell. BUY BUY BUY!