Tetsuo I & II – Chu Ishikawa
Ishikawa deftly matches the dystopian visuals in Tetsuo with all manner of clanking, blasting noisescapes and an onslaught of militant percussive barrages.
Published on April 23, 2012 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film

Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 biomechanical-horror Tetsuo: The Iron Man uncoils as a nightmarish fusion of Eraserhead, Cronenbergian body-horror and grungy William Gibson-inspired cyberpunk. The ‘story’ concerns a nameless protagonist, a lowly office drone, whose body begins to painfully transform into scrap metal after he runs over a mysterious ‘metal fetishist’ who had been inserting bits of metal into his body before straying into the road. Increasingly disturbing events and horrifying visions (including a scene where the main character’s penis suddenly turns into a large drill while he’s having sex with his girlfriend) culminate in a showdown between the man and the fetishist as their bodies completely turn to metal and they fuse together to wreck havoc throughout Tokyo.

Filmed in black and white on 16mm and resembling something akin to live-action Manga, Tetsuo is a barrage of gritty aesthetics, kinetic editing, deafening industrial music, grotesque violence and retina-searing imagery. Raw, unflinching and intense, it is also an astounding showcase of Shinya Tsukamoto’s ingenuity as a visionary filmmaker working on a low budget. A visceral exploration of the fragility of flesh as it is mangled by an onslaught of savage machinery and soulless technology, Tetsuo seeps with rage and existential angst. Tsukamoto solders all manner of disturbing images onto a narrative that can only be described as an extended cyber-nightmare. Events are soon rendered hellishly claustrophobic due to the abundance of metallic waste and debris that chokes the already cluttered sets and tight shots and gradually encases the brittle bodies of the characters. Its 1992 follow-up/remake, Tetsuo: Body Hammer, is essentially a reworking of the same themes and ideas, with the story of a vengeful father’s violent, metal enshrouded encounters with a gang of skinheads who kidnap his son.

The intensity of the visuals in both films is effortlessly matched by a crunching industrial soundtrack courtesy of Chu Ishikawa. As the front-man for the metal percussion outfit Der Eisenrost (‘The Iron Rust’), Tokyo based Ishikawa is no stranger to creating thrashing metallic discordance and has been cutting his teeth on the industrial scene since he was 18. Utilising a formidable array of metal acoustics and self-made instruments, the musician deftly matches the dystopian visuals in Tetsuo with all manner of clanking, blasting noisescapes and an onslaught of militant percussive barrages. The soundtrack album comprises of tracks from both films, the metal encased bombardment of which perfectly tangles together to evoke memories of the jagged editing, breakneck pacing and shocking imagery of man melding with machine from the films. The tracks Megatron, Mausoleum and Lost are from Tetsuo: The Iron Man, while Dinosauroid, Rana-Porosa / Porosa I & II, The Sixth Tooth and A Burned Figure are from Tetsuo II: Body Hammer.

Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the album is largely made up of aggressive and ferocious industrial music, but it works perfectly well when ostracised from the visuals of the films. Yes, there’s a lot of brutal stuff on here, but there’s also a lot of strangely beautiful and, dare I say it, ambient moments too. This is evidenced in the likes of Rana-Porosa / Porosa I, which tones down the aggression, getting rhythmical with a vengeance with its po-going beats and gargled synths, and Lost, which unfurls from an almost tender intro comprising of glockenspiel and synthesised percussion into a melancholic dirge. It’s also the longest track and the initial theme played on the glockenspiel echoes throughout interludes of oriental-esque piano motifs, plucked acoustic guitar and playfully slo-mo, clunking percussion. Rana-Porosa / Porosa II is perhaps the most ambient track on the album; opening with echoic drones and washes it gradually surges up with a John Carpenter-like bass line and downbeat synth melody.

Elsewhere, The Sixth Tooth boasts crashing beats, mechanical rhythms and an insistent drive, acting as something of a precursor to the utterly deranged Dinosauroid; a combination of maddeningly frantic beats, odd time signatures and an intense fury that just blasts out of the speakers with tsunami-like aggression. A number of tracks feature abstract structures which bleed and twist throughout an array of changing tones and motifs. Mausoleum, with its high-pitched synths and scraping percussion that grinds to a halt for some moody downtime before erupting with even more intensity, features one such digressing structure. Closing track A Burned Figure incorporates samples of exotic vocals and a drudging but insistent drive that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Nine Inch Nails album.

My favourite track from the album is Megatron, which opens with shattering metallic sounds and foreboding tension before blasting into an industrial-laden and ferociously melodic cacophony, complete with stomping rhythm. It sets about coaxing us through the experimental structures, provocative concepts and richly intense noises that rage throughout the rest of the album evoking all kinds of metal-shredded nightmares.

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James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey

  • Christine

    This is an amazing look at a film I will never watch…
    Perhaps I’m a bad film fan, but I know enough about these films to know I don’t want to know more. Body horror (and basically everything I’ve read about Tetsuo) scares me. Your lyrical prose and painstakingly crafted descriptions lessened the blow while reading, but this post still made my skin crawl!

  • James

    Thanks Christine. Yes, there’s a LOT of skin-crawling stuff in Tetsuo. The central concept is one that really unsettles me – it’s just so relentless and bleak. Soulless, even; but I think that’s the point. In terms of making the viewer feel vulnerable and uneasy, this film is very successful. I recommend it! Sometimes it’s good to watch stuff that forcibly ejects you out of your comfort zone and into somewhere you feel very unsure of. Much safer than skydiving! 😉