Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: Tetsuo Boxset

The Man Machine

One somewhat unfortunate side-effect of the collapse of Tartan Video a few years ago was that many of their most significant titles have since gone without HD upgrades. While a handful of their most popular titles - such as Oldboy and The Seventh Seal - just about made it to Blu-Ray before the takeover by Palisades, most have had to do without a European HD release. Since Tartan was never the last bastion of picture quality anyway, its a real shame that Tartan Palisades have only reprinted and relabeled existing versions rather than giving them an updating.

Luckily, the rights on a handful of Tartan titles have lapsed recently, and more proactive distributors have swooped in to lavish the titles with attention, raiding the archives for fresh transfers and extras. Arrow Films recently put out new versions of Battle Royale, while new reliables Third Window Films have gained the rights to Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo films. It is that particular release that we now concern ourselves with. The boxset contains Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, although not the much-maligned third entry in the series Bullet Man. How do the films hold up?

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) is the very definition of lo-fi. Shot in 1.37:1 ratio and on 16mm video, this is low budget filmmaking at its most extreme, but also its most ambitious and experimental. Basically the most arthouse monster movie ever made, Tetsuo follows the transformation of a salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) into a beastly cyborg god machine sort of thing. Part revenge film, part body horror, full-on mindfuck - think The Fly meets Eraserhead, by way of Akira and the local scrapyard. Its striking black & white photography and frentic energy have lost little of their manic force. Almost dialogue free, the knowingly nonsensical narrative is a tad confusing but the main character's horrid metamorphosis is realised with gusto (including, most infamously, a drill penis: the most literal of its many metallic phalli). It's hard to pull your eyes away in this full on sensory assault. I wouldn't be surprised if the average shot length in the film is about one or two seconds, such is the brute force of the editing. Particularly worthy of note is the thrilling stop-motion: used to create everything from visceral chase sequences to swarming metallic wires, pipes and cables. Add to this a suitably pounding industrial soundtrack. Tetsuo is an exhausting film, no doubt about it, but there's nothing quite like this slice of gleefully disturbed cyberpunk.

 Its follow-up - Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) - is straight out of the Evil Dead II school of sequels. We have the same basic concept, but with a bigger budget and a larger scope (more characters, more locations, even more phallic symbols). Alas, the thrill of experimentation has been diluted with the addition of more resources. Not that Tetsuo II is a worthless addition: the new colour cinematography, while nowhere near as effective as its predecessor's visual style, is still bold and starkly industrial with consistently unusual lighting and colour choices. While the narrative is easier to digest, this has the unfortunate side effect of making it not all that interesting (including excessive exposition). I wouldn't go as far as calling Body Hammer formulaic (it is still playfully perverse and mental), but it lacks the wholly distinctive identity and aesthetic ambition of its predecessor. The transformation of Taguchi's new salaryman is still relatively engaging, and his final monstrous form is well-realised and absolutely batshit insane. Yet this is Tetsuo-lite, and while it doesn't fully dilute the manic force of its predecessor, it's definitely the inferior production. Even the soundtrack isn't as good. However, time has been kind to the Tetsuo II print, and while its similarly specced technically to the original, this new restoration looks great in its own militantly gritty way.

A welcome extra in this new set is the inclusion of Denchu Kozo no Boken or The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy - Tsukamoto's early film that in many ways act as the trial run and tech demo for Tetsuo. Only forty-five minutes long, the film is a delightfully weird and eccentric slice of nonsense. The main character is the eponymous Electric Rod Boy: a high school kid who for no immediately apparent reason has a giant electricity pole sticking out of his back. He uses a time machine to travel twenty-five years into the future for some reason, where he encounters a dystopian future full of vampires. If that synopsis hasn't sold you, Denchu probably ain't for you. Experimenting with many of the techniques that make Tetsuo so memorable, it's more rough and ready and, shot on 8mm, even more visually basic than its successors. But no lack of budget can disguise the wild enthusiasm and invention of Tsukamoto: his manic creativity more than suffices. It helps that the film is a lot of fun, with a wicked sense of humour and full of the most pleasingly hammy acting and insane electronic music. Even more absurd than either of the Tetsuo films, it is nevertheless a thoroughly good time.

Even on the DVD it's clear that much effort has been spent making these low-budget, technically primitive productions look great. While Tetsuo II is of a lower overall quality to the other two, the three films make for a fascinating boxset of genuinely unique and unusual films. Tsukamoto's later films may have enjoyed bigger budgets and better resources (including the recent Kotoko, due a concurrent release with this boxset), but there's no disguising the (cyber)punk attitude and stylistic ambition of these early works. It is nice to see them back on shelves with some deserved attention lavished on them.

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