From the Dustbins: Tetsuo – The Iron Man



I had a hard time deciding whether or not this truly belonged under the Dustbin moniker, but after realizing that the only people who have probably heard of this film are either cult film aficionados or art film fanatics, I decided that it deserved this treatment.  I’m still not wholly convinced, however, seeing as how cult films are generally dusty old niche things that are remembered, and this certainly has been remembered like any other cult film has.  It’s certainly not something rotting away forgotten in a garbage bin someplace, particularly when one considers that it’s even received a third sequel just this past year.  But all the same, obscure films are obscure, and if I dare say so myself, this film is obscure enough. 

I’m not going to question its worthiness as a cult film, since that would be a pointlessly vain and fruitless effort.  It certainly possesses plenty of the elements that owe themselves to cult-film status—particularly grainy, muddied, monochrome film quality combined with camerawork that might as well have been handled by my drunken high school shop teacher which borders on downright unwatchable.  This, coupled with extreme subject matter, bizarre content, and a narrative that completely disregards traditional methods of character development, tension, and lucidity are the sure-fire markings of an underground extravaganza.  Films I consider to be masterpieces seem to follow similar criteria, and said films  generally affected me in ways that are difficult—if not impossible—to adequately articulate.  They might not even be technically remarkable films, much like Tetsuo in fact, but they possess a charm or passion or element that resonates with me.   The Iron Man isn’t one of these films.

With that in mind, it’s hard to approach this film from any other angle than of a vividly personal reaction because, technically speaking, this film is a mess.  It’s construction is so mindboggling that it’s difficult to tell whether it was meticulously sculpted with formalism in mind or if shots were simply edited together at random.  It really comes off as being a mixture of the two.  It is obvious from the amount of stop-motion photography that some serious effort went into filming alone, props and make-up aside, and yet it throws coherency and narrative logic to the winds in favor of grotesque imagery and insane action.  Not to mention how nauseatingly the whole package is presented. 

That side, it begins with a man walking home to his run-down apartment building that looks to be in the middle of the industrial wastes, cutting open his thigh, and plunging a startlingly large metal tube into it.  Why does he do this?  I do not know.  But, after a cut to mark the progress of time, he unwraps the bandages, finds some maggots squirming around in said wound, and is so alarmed that he runs screaming into the streets and smack into an oncoming car.  Roll opening credits. 

What follows is a lengthy chase scene involving our spectacled salaryman hero running from a bizarre biomechanical secretary, ending in a fight scene that arguably possesses the greatest soundtrack accompaniment known to man.  He crushes her in fierce hand to hand combat after the object of her possession mocks the salaryman, and soon after this the salaryman finds himself undergoing a transmutation not unlike hers.  This is followed by a wonderful shamanistic sequence involving loads of sexual symbolism and dickgirl-on-male rape.  And after that, it’s time for the most infamous scene in the whole film: the drill cock!  


Our salaryman protagonist morphs into a mechanical monster with a power drill for a penis.  That is the extent of this film’s awesome.  After becoming the Iron Man, he lays his dead girlfriend (killed by his electric manhood) to rest in his tub, goes for a hyperkinetic stop-motion fueled stroll, and returns home only to battle his zombie girlfriend in much the same manner he battled the crazy possessed mechanical secretary earlier in the film.  Except this time, the zombie girlfriend transmogrifies into the nameless freaky antagonist—the same person, assumedly, who had possessed the secretary.  He reveals to our Iron Man a vision of a world made entirely of metal.  The two then proceed to duke it out using some sort of stop-motion assisted telekinesis.  That all looks pretty cool, but it’s nearly impossible to follow.  By the end of the film, they have merged into a single being and probably conquer civilization.  It’s hard to tell exactly.

When I first watched this film years ago, it gave me a splitting headache and made me sick to my stomach.  I don’t think it was because of the subject matter, either.  The film quality really got to me.  A year passed before, almost by chance, I ended up watching it again.  I got the same reaction afterwards, and this time I was certain it was because the camerawork and overall quality.  Watching this film is comparable to staring into a fluorescent light bulb blinking on and off very rapidly for minutes at a time, while monkeys slam wrenches against trash cans next to your ears.  The film’s mostly industrial-esque musical score is fitting for its bleak settings and ridiculous narrative, but doesn’t leave nearly as much of an impression as the visuals that is about as pleasing as gouging out my eyes completely.  The only film that is more eye-rapingly painful than this would probably be Begotten.  Or Cloverfield

Ultimately Tetsuo: The Iron Man is, at its heart, like most other cyberpunk works.  This isn’t really about technology, but rather the endless capacity for technology to destroy.  In the film, technology destroys the protagonist’s life, it destroys his ability to interact with others, it destroys his safety, his bonds and romance, and it destroys his humanity.  Perhaps destruction is the wrong term—if nothing else, it changes these things beyond recognition, and it does so with such a flair for the horrific and the depraved that I can only assume that the audience’s response is intended to be negative.  Modernity and technology are hyperbolized into entities of pain and despair; the viewer is given no quarter to this relentless outpouring of derision and frustration as the whole film’s presentation works to bring pain to the audience. 

But keep in mind that Tetsuo: The Iron Man is heavy handed only if one bothers to look beyond the utter madness of metal fetishism, obscene sexual allegory, painful visuals, jaunting imagery, and utterly absurd narrative developments.  Apparently, others have been told that this is a film best watched while intoxicated.  I would think that would only contribute to greater amounts of disorientation and confusion, though it’d probably weaken the viewer’s willingness to care. 


About Merridian
Merri lives with his wife in the USA. He is a happy human being. He wrote for Forced Perspective while the project was active, and he is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of QNUW. His newest project is YNRI // Transcendence, dedicated to poetry, short fiction, and artwork.

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