Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) by Shinya Tsukamoto

We begin with a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) inserting an iron bar into his leg in a gruesome and inexplicable scene. The man, after seeing maggots crawling around this, runs down the street where he is hit by a car. The film then cuts to a young office worker (Tomorowo Taguchi) who is experiencing hellish nightmares of twisted metal. When he awakes he finds a piece of metal sticking out of his face. This man later returns to his apartment, where he makes love to his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). However, a giant drill emerges from his groin and his transformation into the “Iron Man” of the title accelerates. We later learn that this man and his girlfriend were the ones who hit the first man in their car, later disposing of the body and having sex nearby where they dumped it.

“Tetsuo” has a surreal nightmarish quality heightened by use of non-linear storytelling, bursts of stop-frame animation, even the stark chiaroscuro photography. The visuals are stunning and horrific and there are genuine moments of terror as the film plays a lot with claustrophobic close-ups and angles. Shinya Tsukamoto both wrote and directed and it is clearly a singular vison that is being presented here, although drawing on many cyberpunk ideas such as transhumanism and the fetishization of machines. The music by Chu Ishikawa also captures this terrifying tone, with dark, metallic clanging beats really exaggerating the sense of dread and unreality. The overall sound design also goes a long way towards creating a nightmarish vision of a future overrun by the machines.

This film is definitely an experience more so than a story. The make-up and special effects are incredible, capturing the tangled filth of the industrialised world, and a great example of body horror. It can be a difficult watch at times, and will certainly not be for everyone, the frenetic editing can make it tough to follow. There are hints of social commentary, a critique of industrialisation and man’s relationship with machines, alongside themes of psychoses, paranoia, shame, abuse and sexual violence. A unique and terrifying industrial body-horror that is worth a watch for fans of the genre.

Killing (2018)

Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a samurai boarding in a village of rural farmers. He has a relationship with one of the women in the village, Yu (Yu Aoi), and spars with her brother Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) daily. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by the appearance of another samurai, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto), whom they witness defeating another man in a duel. Sawamura conscripts the Mokunoshin and Ichisuke to join him on a trip to Edo and Kyoto, which they agree with, Mokunoshin reluctantly and Ichisuke happily. Sadly, their plans are disrupted by the appearance of a group of ronin whom the villagers fear are there to rob them. Events soon turn violent and Tsuzuki is caught up in a world of death that he had avoided until then.

Written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, “Killing” is on the surface a simple samurai story, though with a dark subtext. The sets and costume design are perfectly evocative of the period and the score by Chu Ishikawa compliments the action perfectly with drums and traditional instrumentation. Where the film strays from the well-trodden path of other samurai dramas is in its arthouse aesthetic. The story is pared back to its essentials, that is to say it is about the taking of life and what this means for the person who does it. The sword-fighting and sparring sequences are well-choreographed and have a fluidity and intensity that makes them a joy to watch. When real swords are used, the film does not shy away from blood spatter and some wince-inducing injuries. There is also humour, often darkly comic, employed to great effect. Tsukamoto is a director with a unique style and will often use a conventional idea in an unusual way. One example is in a scene between Tsuzuki and Yu, that is both tender and erotic without being explicit. It also, as with many other scenes, manages to capture wordlessly yet perfectly exactly what the relationship is between the characters. Dialogue is often sparse with the performances speaking for themselves and the cast do an excellent job with their roles. Ikematsu is brooding and troubled with the path he is set on; Yu Aoi is a tough foil for him, the emotional mirror to the seemingly cold samurai characters. Tsukamoto himself is suitably intimidating as the deadly swordsman, almost personifying death itself. Certain stylistic flourishes, such as darkening the camera, are used sparingly but to great effect throughout. The film’s simplicity may not appeal to everyone, but it allows the themes room to breathe and allows the audience to experience the emotional turmoil of the characters without the need to follow excessive characters or subplots.

As the title suggests, this is a film about killing. Tsuzuki is a man who shies away from violence. His life in the village, despite daily training, is an easy one and he appears comfortable. Sawamura’s appearance is almost like a dark spirit descending on the villagers. The notion of a spirit becomes more apparent at the very end of the film as an unseen force seems to be drifting through the forest searching for its next victim. Sawamura tells Tsuzuki that to not use his sword makes it meaningless. He exists to kill. In this way Sawamura represents the very evil of murder itself, appearing in this rural idyll and setting of a catastrophic chain of events. “Killing” also discusses the theme of revenge, whether it is ever justified and whether a cycle of revenge can ever be broken. ‘Kill or be killed’ is an oft used phrase, but this film exposes the horror of the sentiment in recognizing that there is no good option. Of course, most would consider killing to be preferable, but that leads to a loss of self that is almost as devastating as being killed. “Killing” examines this moral conundrum in a way that leaves a lasting impression, building to a darkly satisfying climax. The film is a philosophical take on the popular samurai genre that dissects what it means to kill and whether killing strips us of our humanity.

A Snake of June (2002)

Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) works as a mental health nurse and lives a comfortable, if apparently sexless, existence with her husband (Yuji Kotari). A package arrives at their apartment and Rinko finds a number of photographs showing her pleasuring herself. There is a mobile phone in the package and she is soon contacted by a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) who wants to blackmail her with these images. He proceeds to lead her on several sexually charged trials, including walking around in an uncharacteristically short leather skirt, buying a sex toy, and inserting a remotely operated vibrator. This man tells her that he is suffering from a terminal illness and that she is the only thing that makes him happy. Rinko’s husband soon discovers the blackmail and attempts to track down this man who is forcing his wife to perform these acts.

Writer and director Shinya Tsukamoto is no stranger to twisted narratives and difficult subject matter. “A Snake of June” sees the auteur director taking on the erotic thriller genre and infusing it with his own particular style. The film is shot entirely with a blue tint that gives it a unique look and the cinematography is nothing short of stunning. The endlessly pouring rain and torrents of water pouring into drains create an almost unbearable sense of tension, blending concepts of sex and violence through pure visual storytelling. The connection of moisture and sex is understandable, but here it is taken to an extreme that creates an oppressive atmosphere of almost hyper-sexuality. This is balanced against the asexual couple at the heart of the narrative. When we see them they are always seated apart. It also seems that Rinko’s husband has an obsession with cleanliness, perhaps referencing the sense of shame that some feel in relation to their sexual urges. Their homelife is painfully sterile, while outside the world is filthy and rain-soaked. This is further highlighted by the rain pounding on the glass window above Rinko as she bathes. She can sense that she has cut herself off from something that is calling her. The shadows of the rain pouring above certain characters, the close-ups on drains, the intercutting of a snail, all do a perfect job of creating an atmosphere that is as gripping as it is terrifying and confusing. While it may not always be apparent what the precise meaning of particular shots are, they have a subconscious and cumulative effect that is undeniable. There are shots that will linger with you long after the film has finished. The eroticism of the film is expertly done and understands that it is often far more about what is suggested than what is shown. It lingers on expectation and suggestion rather than lurid details. Tsukamoto also shows his tendency for horror with the nightmarish vision of characters looking through telescopic headgear at scenes of sexual torture. The character of Rinko is brilliantly brought to life by Asuka Kurosawa, whose story is one of self-discovery and gives a nuanced portrayal of women and sexuality. Yuji Kotari is no less important as a foil for Rinko. His constant cleaning and his anger at discovering the blackmail is important in understanding their relationship. He is almost unreadable sometimes, showing devotion to his wife but a complete lack of physicality in their relations. Both characters have back stories that are alluded to, that help the viewer understand this rather odd relationship. Shinya Tsukamoto himself rounds out the main cast, playing the villainous blackmailer.

Nothing is quite clearly defined in the film, eroticism and horror, love and sex, life and death, all of these are in conflict with one another. There is a theme running through of sex as both dark and dangerous, yet also an emancipatory force. The characters live in their cordoned off home, secure from the metaphors for sex and debauchery outside. The husband’s dedication to cleanliness seems to reference the idea of expunging sin. The death of his mother is alluded to and there is clearly something in his psychology that prevents him being physically intimate with his sexually attractive wife. Likewise, Rinko’s father was a drunken bully, which may have led to her closing herself off from male advances and seeking a similarly asexual partner. The film is divided into sections “woman” and “man”, and the trio of characters act almost as archetypal figures, with Tsukamoto being an unknown quantity, perhaps representative of death or some dark force that is controlling the lives of the man and woman. This work is Tsukamoto at his absolute best, showing a unique talent for directing. “A Snake of June” is beautifully shot and has a story that is engaging, but leaves enough unsaid for multiple interpretations.

Kotoko (2011)

Kotoko is a woman suffering from a peculiar condition that makes her see two versions of people and is often attacked or threatened by the mysterious doppelgangers that appear. The only way she is able to stop these visions is by singing. She also self-harms, not to kill herself, as she explains, but to test if she is still allowed to live. Kotoko lives alone with her infant son, Daigoro, who is the only thing she cares for in the world, wearing a ring only to keep men away from her. Following a series of anxiety attacks and breakdowns, Kotoko’s son is taken from her to live with her sister in Okinawa. A man who catches sight of Kotoko singing on the bus decides to try and help her. He turns out to be a famous novelist Tanaka, and soon he is dragged into her inexplicable and destructive world.

Shinya Tsukamoto uses his creative directorial style to bring us inside the mind of a woman who is unhinged. From the opening scenes of duplicate people, the use of hand-held camera, off-kilter angles and constant movement gives an authentic sense of a disordered mind that few films covering mental illness manage to achieve. Tsukamoto is one of the few directors who makes the camera an integral part of his filmmaking. His belief in the power of the moving image itself to tell a story is also on display. The film opens with a girl dancing on a beach, the tumult of the waves behind, before being broken by a piercing scream. This is only one example of the vague, artistic way that much of the story is presented and lends itself to numerous interpretations of meaning. The film is straightforward in a narrative sense and largely does away with any semblance of plot or structure. Various things happen to Kotoko, but the heart of the film is an experiential collage of her instability. Her family, the author Tanaka, and Daigoro, are static points with which to contrast Kotoko’s own behaviour. The central performance by Cocco is mesmerising as she lets herself become fully immersed in the role. She is sympathetic if not relatable and as the film progresses we see a number of sides to her. Shinya Tsukamoto plays Tanaka as a somewhat naïve martyr to Kotoko’s darker impulses. His kindness in allowing Kotoko to vent her rage on him make for some of the most powerful scenes of the film.

The film hints at a childhood trauma that led Kotoko to her current mental state. The lack of an explicit cause helps the audience relate to Kotoko as we feel the same sense of alienation from that inciting incident. It is clear that she does not understand why she should be suffering this condition, and that unease and anxiety is presented to the viewer as fragmented memories and subtle references. Likewise, her seeing double can be seen as a metaphor for a psyche that has been split asunder by some unspeakable suffering. The film is not an easy watch, its difficult subject matter and experimental style may be off-putting for some. Without a conventional plot structure it can also feel stretched as it is never quite clear where everything is leading. However, fans of Shinya Tsukamoto’s other films will enjoy this as it is the director at his most creative with an incredible performance from the lead actress. The downbeat finale of the film gives an uneasy resolution to the story and almost prompts you to go back to look for clues in the drama to what happened, challenging you as the viewer to engage with the subject matter.

Bullet Ballet (1998)

Goda arrives home from after-work drinks to find his girlfriend of 10 years has shot herself. The initial shock soon gives way to curiosity as he tries to uncover where she got the gun from. His search for understanding, both the mystery of the origin of the weapon, and the more ineffable reasons for her committing suicide. Goda is soon scouring gun enthusiast forums and makes his own firearm. He wanders through the dark underbelly of the city, far removed from his daily life at an advertising agency. His journey brings him into contact with Chisato, a member of a street gang who is engaged in her own struggle with self destruction.

Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) writes, directs and stars in “Bullet Ballet”. The film is a clear development of his style from his earlier Tetsuo films, blending arthouse visuals with the brutality of an exploitation film. Shot on 16mm Black and White, with frenetic cuts, this film has more narrative structure and the editing is reigned in a little which helps make the film more comprehensible. Use of cuts to black, strobe lighting, and more can make for uncomfortable viewing, but these techniques are used sparingly and are rarely gratuitous. There are some stand-out examples of the power of film, in the rapid cuts between gunshots and scenes of war and destruction, that help the viewer sense the terrible power of this weapon. When a gun is aimed at a character in the film you are in no doubt about what the potential consequences would be. The film uses some fantastic locations, dark alleyways and abandoned buildings, and they are shot and directed to their best effect. Dripping water, the play of light and shadows, and the sense of a broken vision of what the city should be all create the perfect backdrop to the drama. The grime and decay is almost palpable through the screen. Tsukamoto, who also plays the lead character, is good as Goda, capturing the various emotions that Goda is going through: anger, sadness, fear. Kirina Mano gives a great performance as Chisato, tough with an underlying fragility. Many of the characters are ambiguous in nature and the film is far from a simple good versus evil tale; instead it feels like it is trying to unravel the morality of an incomprehensibly complex system that is largely dictated by uncontrollable feelings. The supporting cast all do a good job, the gang members are suitably menacing, almost the human embodiment of the dark city streets they inhabit.

Tsukamoto weaves a number of themes and ideas through the simple narrative creating a work that really wants to say something about the problems it addresses. For example, Goda’s obsession with the gun become a more general rumination on the problem of violence in society. Likewise, in attempting to work through his anger and upset at his girlfriend’s death, and fathom some reason for it, he is in fact representing a deeply felt angst in Japanese society about this issue. Suicide is a serious problem in Japan and the film has two characters that seem to have this self-destructive urge. While “Bullet Ballet” rightly shies away from giving any definitive solution to the problem, it does shine a light on it, questioning to what extent this self-destructive urge is perhaps part of a larger undercurrent of violence in society. Goda’s obsession with the gun as a solution to his anger and sense of powerlessness at the loss of his girlfriend shows that Goda is not above this descent into violence.