asian horror

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)


The first in legendary cult director Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo trilogy, The Iron Man is perhaps one of his best known films.  Despite scenes of self-mutilation and forcible, terrifying sexual gratification, the movie aims much higher than simple shock value.  Shot in B&W 16mm, it’s one of the grandfathers of early eighties Japanese cyberpunk, paving the road for the wave of cyberpunk movies and animes which would continue to gain momentum throughout the nineties and beyond.

Grab a cup of motor oil and settle in, you mechanophiliacs – I guarantee after watching this film you’ll never hear the phrase, “drill baby drill” the same way ever again.


Sweaty’s Stats



Not so much nudity, as there is horrifying, sexual body modification.  Mmmyep.


No blood or guts, but again, the BODY HORROR.

Scare Factor

Low to medium.  It’s unnerving, terrifying only in its concept.



The movie opens up with a “hook-‘em-early” approach, as we’re introduced to a man (aka, the “Metal Fetishist”) who does more machines than Donatello.


Goddamnit, internet.

The Fetishist treats us to some self-mutilation, until the image of the maggot-infested wound frightens him, forcing him to run screaming into the willing arms of a Buick (or well, the more fuel-efficient Japanese equivalent).  The sound effects in particular during the mutilation, wet and meaty, are a delicious backdrop to a cringe-worthy scene and make it a worthy look into what’s to come.

Cut to the Businessman, who delights us with some interpretive dance while the mechanically influenced soundtrack goes full throttle.  Overall this movie has a great sense of atmosphere, as Tsukamoto gives special attention to the sound in the film.  Fans of industrial music will no doubt hear the influence of what was the 80’s post-industrial wave sweeping throughout Europe and the US at the time.

The Businessman, trying to go about his businesslife, is chased by a crazy woman with metal interlaced with her flesh.  After this bizarre encounter, he is plagued by nightmares of his girlfriend, also sprouting metal bits, trying to uh … violate him.  Which, let’s face it, is probably not an uncommon dream for the men who are the world’s number one consumers of tentacle rape porn.



Back to waking life, and after some very sensual sausage-eating (not a euphemism), the Businessman begins to transform.  What follows is a scene that would make Kafka proud if y’know, he was into giant cockroach dongs, that is.  The Businessman’s girlfriend aims to stick by her man, but he ain’t havin’ it.  The man becomes the monster, the affliction warps his mind and the Businessman attacks his best girl in a fit of rage and madness.  Things go from zero to rapey in a flash, but the girlfriend is armed and ready to add a little knife play into the insanity.  What follows is a Cronenberg-like scene of sexually-fueled violence and make no mistake: the lack of color does not diminish from the blood and gore here.  I would argue that the monochrome style causes the viewer’s imagination to fill in some of those blanks, a method which can be, and is in this case, that much more terrifying.


Um … n-no thanks.

Things devolve into the surreal from this point on.  We learn that the metal has grown into the Businessman’s brain, causing what appears to be hallucinations, or perhaps this is the director’s sanity shitting the bed, it’s hard to say.  One thing is for sure: Tsukamoto abuses his artistic license in ways that will assault your eyeballs, yet leave you masochistically yearning for more.



The latter half of the movie becomes a buffet of odd, disturbing imagery, as the Businessman continues to physically change while his mind struggles to discern between the horrors of fantasy and reality.  Images of the Fetishist reveal a Thinner-esque curse upon the Businessman, as we learn that the Businessman and his girlfriend were responsible for running over and nearly killing the Fetishist in the beginning of the film.  Enter the metal cats, undead girlfriends and some stop-motion that would make the boys from Tool proud; at times you’ll feel like you’re watching an art house film from hell.  The Businessman, metamorphosing all the way, finds himself chased down by the crazed Fetishist until a final, messy confrontation leads to an ending which is, in my personal opinion, one of the greatest fucking scenes to ever grace Japanese celluloid.


Hint: it’s a weird as this kitty is adorable.


Final Thoughts

It’s probably the ex-film student snob in me, but I’ve always had a lady boner for 16mm.  I love it in the same way I love albums on vinyl; for its gritty, grainy imperfections.  Some movies (much like some albums) should not be too clean.  Tetsuo is a film that conveys isolation, despair and erotic, existential madness.  The film format and lack of color adds perfectly to the overall sense of bleakness you’ll no doubt feel when watching this film.  At the risk of sounding pretentious, I believe that it’s these little details, coupled with Tsukamoto’s unique flair for camerawork and editing that edge this particular shock piece into the realm of “art.”  For example, this movie is not dragged down by dialogue.  Instead we get a film almost entirely comprised of image and ambient sound, somewhat of a pantomime in its approach to telling the tale.  There is no backstory, no deep cause or reason for what you see on screen.  It merely is, and we are along for the weird and wonderful ride.

The makeup effects are surprisingly good for as old as this movie is now (released in 1988).  Again, the absence of color certainly helps this fact, but in no way detracts from the movie.  People sometimes call this movie Lynchian but I disagree; I see much more Cronenberg here, and not just because of the alteration of flesh, but more so because of the bizarre sexual integration with it.  It’s bizarre, humiliating for the hero, but somehow still erotic in its execution (or maybe that’s just me).   It is strange, entertaining – at times humorous, other times horrifying.  This movie is unlike anything else, and deserves every bit of reverence that lovers of Japanese cinema often give it.  It certainly has its place among the greats, and if you’re looking close, you’ll see that Tetsuo: The Iron Man continues to influence current Japanese media even to this day.


IT’S PEEEEOOOPLLLLEEE– oh wait. Actually it’s not this time. Carry on.

Score: 9/10, a classic

IMDB for this flick

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