The power of film to afford us escapism is one of its most alluring draws, yet one viewer's escapism is another viewer's nightmare. For those who crave immersion in bleak dystopian nightmares, it's perhaps difficult to consider a more tantalising prospect than that offered by Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a film which is so downright other-worldly that it almost defies description, and in many ways, so it should; this is a film that should be viewed, and absorbed, rather than described, and any realistic attempt at providing a detailed synopsis would be misguided. Tsukamoto wrote, directed, and also played a role in his genre-defining outing, and built the film around a play he had written and performed whilst at college.
Scant films are able to absorb us absolutely in the world that they construct before us, with the inherent limitation of the flat image providing a tricky obstacle for our complete immersion. And Tsukamoto should surely struggle to do so in his film, with his chosen subject matter being a man's nightmare journey towards his transformation into a fusion of man and machine. Yet for all of its technical complexity and unorthodox construction, Tetsuo proves one of the most engaging and compulsive slices of underground cinema ever made. Ultimately, this is a film that overawes visually, and Tsukamoto crafts what could so easily have been an over-engineered, pretentious, 'arty' mess; yet instead, he spews forth a visual cacophony of industrial-electronic chaos which is breathtaking, bewildering, imperfect, and utterly absorbing.
The film is presented in monochrome, and far from limiting the artistic vision of Tsukamoto, this element of the film is partially responsible for its power. This grim and gritty presentation fits the other-worldly atmospherics of the film perfectly, and lends a sense of authenticity to the complexity of the chaotic electronic landscape. The intricacy of this landscape is an incredible achievement, and the stop motion effects used to create the mechanical movements are superb, even if they lend a slight comic overtone to some of the faster moving outdoor scenes. The other critical component responsible for the credibility of the quite literally incredible visuals is the performances of the actors, which are unequivocally delivered with complete conviction, with all players here colluding to generate an atmosphere which is delightfully bizarre. Particular mention should go to Kei Fujiwara, who plays the girlfriend of our protagonist in the film, and went on to direct the controversial Organ, and the 2005 film Id. Fujiwara also starred in Tsukamoto's earlier 45 minute effort Denchu Kozo No Boken (which translates charmingly as 'The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy'), which is a provided extra on the Third Window release.
Tsukamoto's filmic blueprint for the Japanese cyberpunk genre can be enjoyed on the afore-mentioned visual elements alone, yet these are deliberately positioned and captured (thanks in no small part to the director and Kei Fujiwara's stunning, pacey cinematography) to confront, provoke, and stimulate thought. Tetsuo opens with agonising images of man forcing a painful fusion with machine, surrounded by complex wires and machinery which are adorned with pictures of athletes, technology aspiring to the pinnacle of human physical achievement. Yet the technology here is not the liberating, immaculate, perfect prospect which is such a proud output of Japan and a testament to its awe-inspiring implementation of process; the technological landscape here is grimly organic, living, breathing, and no slave to humanity. No, the technology of Tetsuo is free-minded, ravaging, parasitical, and all-consuming; it's dirty, grimy, irresistible, and, ultimately, irreversible.
Tsukamoto's post-modern uber-industrial night terror is subversive, explosively imaginative, unrefined, flawed, and incredibly exhilarating. For some, escapism may be sought via the latest romantic comedy, but anyone who enjoys a gritty excursion into a world which is as blisteringly imaginative as it is bleak, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is absolutely essential.
How does one follow up the murky, mechanical, monochrome splendour of this seminal Japanese cyberpunk cult classic? Well, with a murky, mechanical, colour Japanese cyberpunk cult sequel, of course. Whilst the two films clearly share many components, characteristics, and themes, there is a distinctly different stylistic feel, and Tsukamoto crafts the sequel more in the vein of an action film and projects the visuals in a slightly less surrealist manner than in the original. Of course, everything is relative, and in comparison to a conventional sci-fi or horror film, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer is still delightfully bizarre and hugely more imaginative than the vast majority of its rivals. Many fans of underground cinema will spot influences in films such as Yoshihiro Nishimura's demented Tokyo Gore Police, and in the work of other groundbreaking directors such as Takashi Miike.
The spectre of over-bearing and rapidly consuming industrialisation is still hugely intimidating in the second film, and man's delight in harnessing the power of industry in some sort of literal organic/metallic fusion to increase his own physical strength and power over others remains tangible. Where Tetsuo II does expand in scope is with its increased attention on human relationships. Whilst the first film depicts the highly charged and sexualised but otherwise flat relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend, the sequel sketches out some nuclear family bonds, and this attention lends proceedings a sensation that is a little more conventional than that of its predecessor. Nevertheless, Tetsuo II's twisted yarn of a strange skinhead cult attempting to experiment upon and harness the power of the Iron Man is an exhilarating experience, and whilst considerably less powerful or downright mind-bending than its parent, it is still a film that is well worth investing in.
Following the Tetsuo duo, Tsukamoto has continued to enjoy a successful career, including directing the chillingly claustrophobic Haze in 2005, and also more recently the acclaimed Kotoko (see John White's review on this very site). A third Tetsuo film in 2009, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, was filmed in English, and received less well than the films which arrived before it.
Tsukamoto's Tetsuo duo arrives on a Blu-ray and DVD disc combi, with the two films residing on the Blu-ray disc. The DVD houses the allocation of extras. The Blu-ray menu is well presented and very easily navigated, and includes the option to toggle the English subtitles on or off, with the subtitles proving well positioned and unobtrusive. Viewers unfamiliar with the film should be warned that this is a product from 1989 captured in monochrome, and engineered with an allocation of creative energy which substantially outweighs and out-punches its budget. Therefore, the quality of the final output here should be considered in this context, especially since high definition presentations can highlight deficiencies in films as much as enhance the viewing experience.
Fortunately, Tsukamoto supervised this transfer (the first transfer of Tetsuo onto a high definition format, by the way), a transfer which was performed using the original negatives, and you can hear him discuss the process briefly during the included interview. Presented in 1080p resolution and transferred using the MPEG-4 AVC codec, Third Window Films deliver us a transfer which demonstrates that fine balance between reviving worn or aged material, whilst still allowing the original 'feel' of the film to breathe freely. There are perhaps fewer films where this is more important, as Tetsuo is a production which thrives on its grittiness, and revels in its depiction of the filthy walkways and oily cogs of the industrial machinery. The film looks superb, and those responsible for the transfer resist the temptation to clean up too much of the image, especially where the low grade imagery is essential for the intended atmospherics. Expect to see the remainder of some dirt and minor damage which has been left on the print, which is unobtrusive and almost a natural part of the final picture.
Tetsuo II is transferred in similarly assured fashion, and you can expect the sequel to also look impressive on its first foray onto the high definition format. Colour simply doesn't suit the Tetsuo atmospherics as naturally as monochrome, but this is no fault of the transfer, and whilst it's still relatively strong, you should expect the colour to look a little less vibrant and substantial in comparison to modern Blu-ray presentations amongst a subtle level of grain, although the overarching blue contrasted with the regular splashes of red works rather well. The image here is particularly clean though, and accuracy strong, and though odd flecks and spots are still apparent on the finished product, this looks natural enough, and fans of the sequel will be delighted with what has been achieved here. This collection of the first two Tetsuo films (plus the addition of the bonkers Denchu Kozo No Boken) will rapidly become the definitive investment for fans of Tsukamoto's exhilarating and disturbing Japanese cyberpunk films.
The thumping industrial soundtrack of the original film is an integral part of its fabric, and the murky grip it exerts on your consciousness is a critical component of its success. The soundtrack is delivered in Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and the quality matches that of the visuals. Again, the lo-fi nature of this component is retained, and though the aural accompaniment could have been harsh and metallic, the end result sounds surprisingly strong, with enough lower end punch that, whilst modest, provides enough depth to soften the harsher sounds higher up the scale. Hiss is remarkably low for the first film too.
The sequel suffers a little more with hiss being evident from early in proceedings. It's still a relatively minor grumble, however, and both films benefit from an aural delivery which belies the age and budget of the film.
The Tetsuo Original Japanese Trailer is essential viewing not only because it's a fantastic trailer in its own right, but also because it allows us a glimpse into the success of the remastering job presented by Third Window on this release. Tetsuo II Original Japanese Trailer performs a similar function, and both trailers are welcomed as an introduction to this extras package.
Interestingly, the Original UK Trailer is a fusion of the two Tetsuo films, and - understandably - promotes the fact that the films are being released on a high definition format for the first time.
An Interview with Director Shinya Tsukamoto lasts for around 17 minutes, and whilst the format is a little irritating (a question appears on the screen before Tsukamoto talks through his answer to the camera), the content of Tsukamoto's is anything but. The director, who, incidentally, looks extremely young considering his impressive career, talks openly and intelligently about the origin of the film, and many of the themes and mythology contained within. What's particularly compelling is Tsukamoto's discussion not only of his influences for the first outing, but also of his intentions when making the two films, and how these differed. Tetsuo: The Iron Man was primarily borne from his desire to make a horror film, albeit with industrial and cyber-erotic overtones, but Tetsuo II: Body Hammer was more of an urban action thriller, and this description of the conceptual basis and artistic intent for each film goes a long way to describing the differences between the end results. Some of the subtitle translations here contain minor errors, but it certainly doesn't detract from the enjoyment of watching the director discuss his film catalogue. Overall, it's uplifting to listen to a gently spoken and self-confessed introvert discussing his creations with quiet enthusiasm, and speaking of the support he has received from those around him whilst crafting his art.
Many who invest in this Third Window release of the Tetsuo films will be doing so to pick up a version of the rare early Tsukamoto move, The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy (Denchu Kozo no boken). Whilst this 45 minute film is almost too visually overwhelming and chaotic to be enjoyable, it certainly uncovers an enormous amount of energy from the young director, and many of the themes and techniques explored in Tetsuo are apparent in embryonic format here, including the stop motion technique used to depict the high speed travel through Tokyo which the characters sometimes embark upon.
Background to Denchu Kozo No Boken features more commentary from Tsukamoto from the same session used for the interview segment earlier on the disc, this time discussing the details surrounding the ...Adventures of Electric Rod Boy film, and this piece lasts for almost 6 minutes.
A set of Third Window Trailers showcases some of the other high quality material released by this label, including much Sion Sono love with the recent Himizu and the brutal Cold Fish, and a Web Link piece provides instructions on how to access some websites of interest. Note that this last extra requires a PC or Mac.
Third Window have included some fresh new extras here which will be highly valued by fans of the cult director's output, and the opportunity to catch Denchu Kozo No Boken should prove a suitable allure even to those who have invested in earlier DVD editions of the Tetsuo films.
Third Window films preside over a typically high quality release, bringing Tsukamoto's groundbreaking Tetsuo duo to the high definition format for the first time. With an honest transfer and remastering from original source negatives (supervised by Tsukamoto himself), and with a healthy allocation of extras including the rarely seen Denchu Kozo No Boken, this constitutes an essential purchase for fans of the groundbreaking Japanese cyberpunk films which have proven so inspiring for other filmmakers.