Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a heavy-metal nightmare that has invited comparison to Eraserhead — except that David Lynch’s film was obsessively slow, while Tsukamoto (who serves as his own editor) keeps the scenes short, fast, anguished. It’s a hyperactive Japanese idea of apocalyptic surrealism — so fractured and jangled that its themes (tormented flesh revolting against encroaching technology) come through only in spurts. For a while, I thought the whole thing was the dream of a car-crash victim in the hospital and hooked up to a life-support system — there’s a recurring image of a car speeding at the camera.
A bespectacled, ordinary drone (Tomoroh Taguchi, looking like David Byrne singing “Once in a Lifetime” in Stop Making Sense) shoves an iron rod into his leg and finds his body turning into a tangled riot of hardware. He dukes it out with a couple of similarly appendaged beings, one of whom drops mad pronouncements about world domination. In the end, these two adversaries merge and, presumably, lay waste to the planet. Tetsuo sometimes seems like an attack on Japan’s fascination with technology, sometimes like a parody of the anime in which robots hammer away at each other. It also answers questions like, “What does an Iron Man do for sex?” The protagonist develops a whirring penis-drill and menaces his girlfriend with it. You don’t care whether this is a satire of ironclad misogyny or an example of it; you just don’t want to see the woman anywhere near that drill.
Shot in black and white (by Tsukamoto and Kei Fujiwara), Tetsuo isn’t as disgusting as it would be in color, but it has more than a few images that rival Eraserhead‘s grossest moments — and those are the images that Tsukamoto bashes you with again and again. Unquestionably it’s a feat of imagination and technique, but an hour of it is more than enough; you’re punchy well before the end.
Tetsuo and its sequel, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (which is more abrasive, more incomprehensible, and more conventional in its story, with much bashing around, much screaming and techno-agony), are like the hallucinations of a college kid who’s been up for three days on nothing but coffee and No-Doz. (Weed might sharpen their appeal for some viewers.) Visually overwhelming (or overbearing), but enough, already. If you’ve seen it, though, you might understand why I was less than overwhelmed by 2008’s Iron Man.