Anxiety in a Technological World: Tetsuo: the Iron Man
When new technologies impose themselves on societies long habituated to older technologies, anxieties of all kinds result . (McLuhan 25)
Although, to my knowledge, Marshall McLuhan was not a direct influence on director Shinya Tsukamoto, few films articulate McLuhan’s argument better than Tsukamoto’s 1989 film Tetsuo: the Iron Man . The film presents, through hyper-visceral images and sounds, newer technologies forcefully imposing themselves on human life. Yet the film does not seek to present this imposition in a ubiquitously negative light. In fact, when reading the term “anxiety,” I mean not to say that the film is only fearful, but rather that, as in the broader definition of the word, the film also displays eagerness, possibly even an intense desire for this technological takeover. Consequently, as I will show in this essay, the resulting film is one which attempts, by any means necessary, to ultimately unify its extreme, conflicting feelings. The inevitable result is one which tries to mix pain with pleasure, merge man and metal, and, through the film’s style, unite new media with old. The film’s influences are similarly varied and, as I will also discuss in the essay, Tetsuo: the Iron Man also displays an intense fusion of several different avant-garde and experimental art styles and tendencies.
Starting with Tetsuo: the Iron Man ‘s handling of anxiety, we find the melding of pain and pleasure. Probably the most vivid and memorable expression of this comes during a scene when the protagonist, known simply as the “salaryman”, becomes fully possessed by the spirit of Yatsu, someone whom the salaryman had struck and killed with his car. 1 Through this possession, Yatsu has the salaryman go through extreme metallic mutation which inevitably causes him to grow a metallic drill-like penis. With this new appendage, the salaryman attacks his girlfriend, and ends up killing her through sex. The film’s shocking presentation of a highly transgressive sexual acts such as this is often seen as coming from one of Tsukamoto’s chief inspirations for this film: the work of Canadian director David Cronenberg. Tsukamoto has referred to himself as “one of Cronenberg’s disciples,” and scenes like the one described evoke the intensely sadomasochistic scenes of a film like Videodrome (Brown 72). 2 Indeed, as Steven J. Brown writes, both films work toward the similar end of making the extremes of agony indistinguishable from those of pleasure (92). However, Tetsuo: The Iron Man has an interesting connection with another one of Cronenberg’s films. Prior to killing his girlfriend, we see the scene of the salaryman accidently striking and killing Yatsu with a car. In a later flashback shot from Yatsu’s perspective, we see both the salaryman and his girlfriend get out of the car and proceed to have sex; the accident has aroused them. As Brown writes, this scene is fascinating as it not only prefigures Cronenberg’s Crash , which similarly treats car crashes in an erotic and voyeuristic manner, but also the Japanese translation of J.G. Ballard’s book upon which Cronenberg’s film is based (90). Nevertheless, while both that scene and the earlier rape scene are memorably disturbing, what I believe to be the most fascinating merging of pain and pleasure comes in the representation of the crash itself; a scene which is atypically serene. In it, we start with an exciting, fairly typical montage of shots leading up to the crash. However, this is immediately followed by a calm, almost hallucinatory sequence in which time seems to stand still. We see the car’s bumper, filmed in close-up, as the camera smoothly rocks back and forth to relaxing jazz music. The car’s headlights then start flashing in an entrancing manner to the beat of the music and we dissolve to a fence. We leisurely track across this fence, which has the words “New World” (reminiscent of Cronenberg’s “New Flesh”) written upon it in metal trimmings. Finally, we hear the sound of the crash play over the music without ever actually witnessing it. What strikes me is the way in which Tsukamoto doesn’t use sex to suggest pleasure, but rather uses the film’s form to represent this lethal accident in a pleasurable, almost sensual fashion. Essentially, through the form, he makes the audience emotionally complicit in enjoying this violent collision between man and metal. Given this, I also find the crash sequence one of the more poignant examples of Tsukamoto’s stated interest of expressing “eroticism through iron” (Mes 59).
For Tetsuo: the Iron Man , the logical extreme of this eroticism naturally lies in the total fusing of man and iron. This aspect is at the forefront of the film, as most of it presents the robotic mutations of the salaryman in a shocking, often graphic way. So much so that by the end of the film, the character essentially appears to be nothing more than a living pile of scrap metal. This combining of man and iron has garnered much comparison with the aesthetics of similar machine/man themes of cyberpunk. According to Takayuki Tatsumi, the cyberpunk genre had reached its peak of popularity in Japanese pop culture in 1988, only a year before Tetsuo: the Iron Man ‘s release (109). Given this, it’s fairly understandable that Tsukamoto might have been influenced by the genre, and that the film would end up being considered cyberpunk. And, indeed, one the most strikingly cyberpunk moments occurs in the film’s opening title sequence. In it, the film cuts rapidly between the machines of a steel mill and shots of the salaryman dancing in a frenzied, yet rigid, manner to the rhythmic sounds of the mill. The scene appears to take place outside the narrative, yet it serves a thematic point as the rapid editing helps to create visual parallels between human motion and the mechanical motions of the surrounding mill. Tsukamoto further emphasizes the similarities through other cinematic techniques like jump cuts, as well as both fast and slow-motion shots, giving the movements a hyperkinetic quality. Although this moment seems quintessentially cyberpunk in its aims to meld man and machine, it also echoes underground Japanese punk films of the early 1980’s. Specifically, it’s emblematic of hyperkinetic style used in Sogo Ishii’s early films like Burst City and Crazy Thunder Road . As Tom Mes writes, Ishii’s films “employed a style that combined rapid editing, jump cuts, varying degrees of undercranking, and the elimination of frames,” which would heavily inspire Tsukamoto’s own work (40). So much so that, not only do virtually all of those techniques appear in the opening moments of Tetsuo: the Iron Man , but Tsukamoto considered Ishii his cinematic “older brother” (Mes 40). From this perspective, the film tries to earn the “punk” suffix just as much as the “cyber” prefix. In fact, going beyond Ishii, the film can also be considered punk in its intermittent use of video footage projected on television. As Glenn Phillips writes of punk artists in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the “humble” nature of video seemed in tune with “the do-it-yourself immediacy and cut-and-paste aesthetic of punk” (12). Albeit Tsukamoto never uses video simply for its own sake. Instead, he strategically uses it to continue the film’s cybernetic interest of linking man with machine. To that end, the only time the film invokes video is when it presents either memories or point of view shots. For instance, when we see the salaryman and his girlfriend having sex after the car crash, because we are watching front Yatsu’s point of view, Tsukamoto presents the scene as though we were watching a cassette recording of the incident on television. We can clearly see the blurred quality of video and the scan lines of the television. On top of this, to further exaggerate the distortion, at one point the footage even rewinds in the distinctly hazy manner associated with video. As Brown writes, in doing so, the film stresses the sheer extent to which their perception of the world has become mediated by technology (89).
By integrating these shots which convey a video and television aesthetic, Tetsuo: the Iron Man also expresses an interest in uniting various forms of visual media. This is particularly emphasized during the title sequence in which almost everything is shot on film, however the film’s title “TETSUO” appears overlaid on these filmic images with the crackling scan lines associated with television. While this juxtaposition of film, video, and television can be read as part of an interest in Videodrome , it is also representative of the concerns many Japanese experimental filmmakers had tackled in previous years. From the 1950’s onwards, Japanese film theory focused heavily on the concept of Eizō. As Yuriko Furuhata writes, Eizō refers specifically to “images created and mediated by technological means, including cinema, television, photography, and computer imaging” (39). This theoretical connection between film and other visual media led many Japanese filmmakers to radically blend these various media in experimental ways (Furuhata 37). In light of this, other sequences from Tetsuo: the Iron Man come to mind. Most notably, there are the metallic mutation sequences which are often presented through a combination of film and stop-motion animation. Similarly, when Tsukamoto later tries to create the impression of characters being propelled by rockets (which have formed on the back of their feet), Tsukamoto utilizes pixilation. With this strong interest in blending media, Tetsuo: the Iron Man ends up fitting into one of the strongest traditions of Japanese experimental filmmaking.
That said, Tetsuo: the Iron Man can more generally be seen as fitting into a variety of cinematic styles. I’ve mentioned the connection with Cronenberg, punk, and Japanese experimental cinema, however the film evokes several other traditions as well. One which is most striking, as Mes notes, is the film’s relationship with silent cinema (63). Although it has deafening music and sound effects, the film features minimal dialogue. More importantly, as Mes further points out, the black and white cinematography, along with the highly exaggerated acting, make-up, and lighting, give the film a strong aesthetic resemblance to films from the silent era (63). Going back to the unison between extremes, one could accurately describe Tetsuo as being an incredibly loud silent film. Nevertheless, ignoring the film’s soundtrack, the visuals still invite some comparison with early silent experimental films. For instance, the opening title sequence brings to mind Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s 1924 film Ballet Mécanique in that it is a film which, as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson write, often makes “explicit comparison of humans and machines” (375). Alternatively, the crash sequence can be regarded as a short example of the sort of film poetry popular in many silent experimental films. Indeed, by halting the narrative to explore the instant of the crash, this unconventional crash strongly echoes Maya Deren’s view that poetic films should focus on exploring the meaning of moments suspended in time (Jackson 66). I am unaware if these latter connections were fully intentional on Tsukamoto’s part; however, they nevertheless demonstrate how deep Tetsuo: the Iron Man ‘s roots go into the history of filmmaking. It could almost be said that, much as the salaryman becomes a ragged combination of man and metal, the film’s form in itself becomes a ragged and visceral synthesis of disparate styles and techniques.
There are certainly other formal and thematic aspects to the film that can be discussed, yet its obsession with uniting extremes has always struck me as its defining characteristic. Pain and pleasure, man and machine, and old and new are all merged into a film which is inevitably (and appropriately) beautiful and revolting. Even the film’s own label of “cyberpunk” can be seen as a paradoxical merging of an organized technological aesthetic and the disorganized aesthetic of punk. Ultimately, through both form and content, the film presents a complex, paradoxical expression of anxiety in the face of the ever-growing presence of technology. In other words, at its core, Tetsuo: the Iron Man can be seen as Shinya Tsukamoto’s conflicted instinctual reaction to a brave “New World.”
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction . New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.
Brown, Steven T. Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.
Furuhata, Yuriko. Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics . Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2013. Print.
Jackson, Renata. “The Modernist Practices of Maya Deren.” Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde . Ed. Bill Nichols. Los Angeles: University of California, 2001. 47-76. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. “Probes.” The Book of Probes . Ed. W. Terrence Gordon, Eric McLuhan, and Philip B. Meggs. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2003. 8-545. Print.
Mes, Tom. Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto . Surrey, England: FAB, 2005. Print.
Phillips, Glenn. “Introduction.” California Video: Artists and Histories . Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008. 1-16. Print.
Tatsumi, Takayuki. Full Metal Apache: Transactions between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America . Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006. Print.
- In most English translations the Salary Man is sometimes simply referred to as “Man”, whereas Yatsu is referred to as “The Metal Fetishist.” For this essay I will try to stick to the Japanese titles. ↩
- It is through McLuhan’s immense influence on Videodrome that I believe it’s possible to make a link between McLuhan’s philosophy and Tetsuo: The Iron Man . ↩