Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo is a landmark film, no doubt about it. It crawled up from its tiny, little, underground niche and wrestled its way up to become one of the must-see films for any loving film fan with a growing interest in Asian cinema. Surely it's not a film for everyone, but at the least you owe it to yourself to find out what Tetsuo does for you. As for me, it's still one of my top 10 all-time favorites.
Not only is Tetsuo a landmark film for Tsukamoto, cyberpunk cinema, Japanese cinema or even Asian cinema as a whole, it's also a personal landmark. A film that defined my taste in movies and turned me into a real film fan. Before Tetsuo I (like everyone else) watched movies from time to time, but just as a regular pastime. The first time I put the VHS in the recorder I needed four pauses to complete the film. I didn't like it much and understood very little of what Tsukamoto trying to do here. But the film didn't let go of me and not a week later I had seen it three times already and bombarded it as one of my absolute favorites. It never really lost that status since.
Tetsuo was one of the first films I watched that didn't occupy itself too much with direct storytelling and character development (though in a sense it's the physical character development that makes it such a cool film), rather it tries to convey a more abstract experience of the material it presents. There's hardly any dialogue and what plot there is, is simple and juvenile, but Tsukamoto uses that void to put a lot more focus and attention on the way you experience his film.
The story makes little actual sense but should be quite easy to follow even when you don't have proper subtitles available. When one day a man crashes into a street bum with his car, he disposes of him quickly before getting caught. When he wakes up the next day though, he finds himself turning into a metal mutation, spawning tubes and wires from all over his body. To make things worse, he is being stalked by a metal fetishist showing a lot of interest in his barren situation.
Above all, Tetsuo is a visual experience. While its low-budget roots are obvious, the lush, high-contrast black and white visuals hide many of the imperfections and help tremendously in giving everything the needed metal shine. The cinematography is overall impressive, but it's definitely the live stop-motion sequences that will leave the biggest impression. Manically edited and frantically paced, they define this film. And even though Tsukamoto owes quite a lot to the prior work of Sogo Ishii (August in the Water, Electric Dragon 80.000V), he definitely improved on it and made it his own.
Another crucial element in the whole Tetsuo experience is Chu Ishikawa's soundtrack. In line with the metal theme of the film, Ishikawa opted for a strong and fitting industrial score. Clanky sounds are assembled and structured to create a unique and immersive ambient soundscape, from time to time ruptured by strong, pounding beats. The sync between audio and visuals is also impeccable, even by today's standards.
The acting shows definite signs of Tsukamoto's high energy theater background, but considering the style of the film this is perfectly acceptable. The world of Tetsuo is as alien as the wild and broad expressions of its characters. Tsukamoto and Fujiwara (producer of Tetsuo and also director of Organ and ID) take the biggest roles, together with Tomorowo Taguchi who properly launched his career with this film. A very powerful actor with a broad range, able to play anything from metal mutant to creepy pervert (Hiroki's M, right down to docile friend (Hiroki's It's Only Talk).
Tetsuo is a film that weighs on you. Many people complain that even though it's only 70 minutes, the second part is too long and should've been trimmed. I don't agree (at all), as this is exactly why Tetsuo is such a great film. Halfway through you're ogling the screen wondering how and if it can get any weirder, crazier and more hectic. The second part goes on to illustrate just that. As the film continues it becomes more abstract and alien, working up to a perfect climax that still knows to blow my mind. Some of the grainy, black and white shots near the end are so vague and weird that it's almost impossible to see what exactly is going on, but the overall effect remains.
It's hard to predict how people watching this now for the first time will experience Tetsuo though. Ever since its initial release more films followed in its footsteps, sporting bigger budgets and better technical stats. The film does show its age, but at the same time it remains unique enough to transcend its dated exterior, where others (like Eraserhead) are starting to lose some of their initial shine.
But no matter what you think after watching this film, it is quite simply a must-see for everyone with the least bit of interest in films that dare to be different. Tsukamoto's Tetsuo is an almost perfect cyberpunk endeavor, sporting lush black and white visuals and a superb industrial soundtrack, while providing a nerve-wrecking and overwhelming experience. In all these years I still find it as bold, daring and impressive as the second time I watched it, having lost little to nothing of its initial impact. It belongs firmly in my top 10 lists of favorite films and probably will remain there for some time. Absolutely recommended.