Tetsuo: The Iron Man ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Sci-Fi September 2019

Really struggling to collect my thoughts with this one. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a stylistic feast for the eyes that leaves you bewildered, confused, amazed and fearful all at the same time.

After a hit and run incident, a man finds himself slowly being taken over from the inside by industrial machine parts in a bio-mechanic synthesis between man and machine. This corporeal destruction of the self and embracement of the technological is both treated as horrific and transcendental, leaving you with a permeable feeling of ambivalence by the end, and asking you to make up your own mind about his Post-human apotheosis.

The 1980s saw a decisive shift in both the Sci-Fi genre and moviemaking at large. With the release of Blade Runner, seeds of the cyberpunk sub-genre of Science Fiction were planted, with its engagement of issues of humanity's relationship with technology, as well as an industrial cityscape that echoes the transnational scientific epoch of Japan post-WW2. Written concomitantly and released two years later was William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, the book that birthed the cyberpunk genre, utilising a similar Japanese-American hybrid ethos with neon aesthetics and questions surrounding humanity and the artificial.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man fulfils cyberpunk's basic mantra of "mixing lowlife with high tech", as Bruce Sterling puts it in the Preface to William Gibson's Burning Chrome (p. xiv, 1986). This film is so dirty, grimy and decrepit in all the right ways. Uncomfortable close-ups of the character's face pervade throughout, and the technology that surrounds and engulfs the frame looks as though it was fished out of the garbage tip. Combined with the VHS camera quality, the hand held cinematography, and use of a black & white colour pallet extrapolate the grimy nature of the film.

The body is constantly engulfed in the machinery in a kind of metaphysical synthesis and synchronicity that is both beautiful and deadly. Early on in the film, as the metal fetishist implants the metal pole into his leg, it is frightening and off putting. The sex scene between the man and the woman as the flesh like tentacles of metal anally penetrate him, technology is presented as a violation of the body and a transgresser of social norms. In this sense, the metallic is symbolic of the phallus and male desire, and its ability to destroy. Emphasised later on as his penis turns into a giant rotating drill that violently destroys the woman he loves, presenting this bio-mechanic invasion of the body as horrific. But in the climactic showdown between the two characters, it is devoid of any skin and flesh, and it is merely metal clanging against metal. Their subordination within the machine, however, is rendered romantic by their embracement of the machine, emphasised in the dream-like sequence wherein they float metabolically in a womb-like state of oscillation and suspension, reborn again into a new emancipated whole.

The embracement of the machine, I think, is tied directly to the history of the cyberpunk genre, and is most likely the message the film was going for. As gross and disgusting as the film's technology may be, their relinquishment of their human bodies is liberating as they become one and free their consciousness in a kind of Cartesian separation. Early cyberpunk novel's such as Neuromancer and Blade Runner exemplify this push towards an embracement of the artificial, with Gibson's novel echoing notions of the ‘post-human’ that celebrates the potential of humanity’s integration with the polymorphous worlds of digital space. Gibson's representation of the cyberspace "matrix" where humans project their "disembodied consciousness" into a metaphorical "consensual hallucination" penetrates the new medium that separates mind from body in a manner that dissolves the self, re-emerging in fusion as a new transcendental medium. Concerns with the implications of unchecked scientific progression in a post-industrial, emerging digital age do emerge in Gibson’s Neuromancer, much like Tetsuo, presenting the moral corruption of a world where traditional notions of human identity are subsumed by the spiritual malaise of a society increasingly shaped by scientific and technological progress. The characterisation of protagonist Case, an exiled console Cowboy hostile to the body’s incarcerating "meat" that metaphorically confines him to the "prison of his own flesh", reveals a desire for inanimateness or nonexistence through immersion in the matrix, man-machine interface that echoes contemporary fears of the disruption of human singularity, or the point at which technology subsumes human identity. But ultimately, Neuromancer envisions a context moving toward a fusion of man and machine, evoking Descartes' insistence of a mind body dualism, which posits that the mental can exist outside of the body. This is represented in the allegorical climax of the novel, where Case’s incorporeal fusion with the super consciousness of the global computer network evokes notions of Transhumanism, a Moravecian rapture of disembodiment where the evolving kinship between technology and humanity emancipates us from the limitations of the past.

Tetsuo advocates similar messages, although, I think to a lesser degree. Whether or not it is supposed to be romantic is still ambiguous to me, and I feel that the movie is too convoluted to fully understand whats happening half the time anyway (not in a way where its difficult to understand but with rewatches I'll get it, more in a not very well communicated sort of way). A lot of it is also really over the top and the story isn't that great considering the concepts and the pitch that it is about. I would like to see the same basic idea be executed by another director just to contrast, as I like the premise of a man slowly being taken over by machine parts, but this was just a bit off the wall bonkers. But I can't help but love the style of this, with its MTV-like editing and awesome shots and crazy things happening. I was never bored, I'll say that. I'm glad it was only an hour, though, I can't imagine this paper thin plot getting stretched for any longer.

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