Arrow Video: Solid Metal Nightmares - The Films of Shinya Tsukamoto (1987-2018) - Reviewed

The films of Japanese cyberpunk speed demon provocateur Shinya Tsukamoto are like the weather.  Organic, unpredictable, untamable and above all uncategorizable, the chameleonic cult hero of underground independent modern Japanese outlaw cinema remains one of the most formidable and easily identifiable faces of East Asian filmmaking.  A wholly original moviemaking genius who most certainly paved the way for the outlaw likes of Takashi Miike or Sion Sono, his films often took a surreal, hyperkinetic audiovisual approach to his visceral character studies.  Frequently ultraviolent, psychosexual and dripping with physicality, Tsukamoto’s work resembles nothing which came before in the annals of Japanese cinema.

Garnering an international following with his still iconic 1989 black-and-white cyberpunk masterpiece Tetsuo: The Iron Man, much of Tsukamoto’s work remained tragically unavailable in the United States outside of lackluster second or third generation DVD transfers.  In the early 2010s, Third Window Films released a remastered version of Tetsuo though only available to British consumers, leaving American filmgoers high and dry with few viable options to digest the idiosyncratic auteur’s filmography.  Recently however, Arrow Video sought to right that wrong with what became known as Solid Metal Nightmares: The Films of Shinya Tsukamoto.

An expansive, comprehensive collection amassing ten of the director’s films presented in gorgeous new digital transfers supervised by Tsukamoto himself, Solid Metal Nightmares also comes with extensive extras including interviews with cast and crew members, archival making-of materials and feature commentaries by Tsukamoto biographer Tom Mes.  Also included in the boxed set is a reversible poster and hardbound booklet featuring essays by Kat Ellinger, Mark Schiling and Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp. 

Though the set excludes the third Tetsuo film from the set, for longtime fans as well as newcomers Solid Metal Nightmares is a great starting point offering some of the director’s most celebrated films in this 4-disc blu-ray set.  With this, let us take a closer look inside the films shaping the career of one of modern Japanese cinema’s most provocative shape shifters who always seems to be several steps ahead of his contemporaries.

The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo (1987)

Starting out as a bizarre children’s fantasy film before gradually incorporating the extreme elements found in his first feature Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the Super 8 lensed short film The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo is like a punk rock video that’s equal parts playful and vicious.  Involving a young ineffectual schoolboy with a metallic pole sticking out of his spine, soon this phantasmagorical journey comes into contact with androgynous punkish vampires, time travel, the end of the world, a metallic box moving at superhuman speed and a tentacle covered female vampiress.  All of this comes at the viewer with such rapidity you’re not really sure what you’ve just seen except that it’s filling what is ostensibly a youth fantasy short with increasingly transgressive imagery.

While some of the effects work is as low budget as they come, replete with an apocalyptic cloud rendered by cotton balls, it was clear nothing quite like The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo had come before.  Functioning as both a dress rehearsal for Tetsuo: The Iron Man while channeling the director’s own wild imagination through the camera, this wicked burst of creative energy instantly cemented Tsukamoto’s cult status as a one-man show.  Originally created by Tsukamoto as a live theater piece for his very own Kaijyu Theater Group, Tsukamoto then elected to shoot a film version of it, forming his own film production company in the process which afforded him total creative autonomy. 

One of the first things a viewer notices watching Denchu-Kozo is just how much of the legwork is overseen with painstaking detail by its director.  Tsukamoto writes, edits, produces, photographs, directs and often even acts in his films.  A fastidious but always on-his-feet innovator, the responsibility of mounting a film production and doing nearly all of the heavy lifting during the principal photography stages is enough to deplete one of all their creative energies.  And yet Tsukamoto not only does just about everything, he has a distinctive cinematographic aesthete which only intensifies with each successive project.  Which brings us to what would become his first feature length theatrical project, Tetsuo: The Iron Man.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Like a biomechanical bat-out-of-Hell flying up and down Japan’s streets and alleyways at hundreds of miles an hour, Tetsuo: The Iron Man remains a bewildering, visceral attack on the senses with a purity not lending itself towards any outside influences.  While some might mistake this as a live action rendition of the ending to Akira, Tsukamoto’s gritty 16mm black-and-white surrealist shocker is much closer to being a bastard lovechild of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Seijun Suzuki and even Sam Raimi.  Though rendered on a shoestring budget with Tsukamoto once again doing nearly all the behind-the-camera work while immersing himself fully in the mania pouring out onscreen, Tetsuo: The Iron Man from beginning to end achieves a palpable otherworldliness somewhere between the subconscious, the psychosexual and the waking state.

A bigger budgeted remake of his first student short film The Phantom of Regular Size about a salaryman whose body starts to mutate and fuse with metallic objects, Tetsuo: The Iron Man follows a nameless protagonist played by Tomorowo Taguchi whose body begins to transform after being pursued by a deformed woman in a subway.  From here, the film becomes a sustained burst of speed, light and sound with frequent hyperkinetic animated editing and a pulsating industrial score by soon-to-be regular collaborator Chu Ishikawa. 

Violent, gory, vulgar, perverse, extreme and ultimately uncompromising, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is often dubbed ‘the Japanese Eraserhead’ though Lynch’s film moves at a significantly slower, methodical pace whereas Tsukamoto’s film moves so fast it’s hard to keep up with.  Like The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo, the film shares a kindred thematic element of nebbish masculinity with the male protagonist being pursued, helped and/or vanquished by dangerous women.  Themes of emasculation, gay panic, burning desires and the loose connection between sex and violence all come into play in Tetsuo though like the nameless antihero of the piece, everything fuses together into something faintly familiar but ultimately indistinguishable.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man isn’t poised to appeal to everyone.  It is a bona fide rusty biomechanical nightmare full of unspeakable transgressions and increasingly phallic imagery all of which furiously push the boundaries of film (at the time) as far as they can go.  Either an ingenious or deeply insane work, Tetsuo: The Iron Man truly is an extraordinary little masterpiece of cinematic innovation as body horror and loose investigation into a man’s fear of his own sexuality.  Even without the narrative thrust, whether you make heads or tails of it, it is a bare fanged work of pure cinema unafraid to affront in the aim of discovering something you’ve never seen before.

Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)

After destroying the Japanese cinematic world with his iconic surrealist shocker Tetsuo: The Iron Man, it was inevitable Shinya Tsukamoto would return to the world of metal fused with human flesh once again.  Working this time around with a fully-fledged budget and shooting in 35mm color film with far bigger set pieces, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer swiftly moves away from the psychosexual ruminations laid out in Tetsuo: The Iron Man in favor of a more straightforward story. 

Starring Tomorowo Taguchi in the lead role once again, the film follows a married man whose young son is kidnapped by a violent gang leading towards a peculiar fusion of metal, flesh and firearms.  Though the characters and stories aren’t directly related, a kindred theme of ineffectual masculinity leading towards unalterable bodily transformation gradually comes into the foray.  No less bizarre or affronting of an audiovisual experience as the first film, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer separates itself as a kind of action picture with many more strange characters lurking about.

Far more unforgivingly violent than the first film including some explicit subliminal imagery sneakily unveiled upon the viewer in rapid-fire montage, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer like its predecessor is an openly defiant science-fiction nightmare which only grows more apocalyptic as it goes on.  Told on a grander scale than the first film, Body Hammer also wound up employing two more cinematographers in addition to Tsukamoto as the size of the project debatably exceeded the director’s grasp. 

While lacking the solidarity of the first film which remains as wholly original as any science-fiction/horror film of the 1980s, Body Hammer does show the filmmaker’s technical skills improving aided by the use of monochromatic color.  Just a few years later, though, Tsukamoto would unveil what would become his strongest work since the first Tetsuo offering with his ultraviolent boxing drama Tokyo Fist.

Tokyo Fist (1995)

The boxing drama is as old as the medium itself, but you can safely say you’re not going to get a traditional offering with Tsukamoto helming the project.  Taking his hyperkinetic biomechanical aesthetic from his Tetsuo films into an entirely new direction unexpected yet unsurprising, Tokyo Fist reimagines the sport of professional boxing from training to practice as an increasingly mad battle of survival of the fittest where all things including sex become tinged with violence. 

Presenting a truly bizarre love triangle loaded with visceral bloodletting and bodily injuries on full display, Tokyo Fist finds mild-mannered salesman Tsuda (Shinya Tsukamoto) fraught with jealousy when old friend/professional boxer Kojima (Koji Tsukamoto) begins an affair with his fiancĂ©e Hizuru (Kaori Fujiii).  After being beaten and humiliated in a fistfight with Kojima, Tsuda embarks on an intense training regimen to avenge himself against Kojima in the boxing ring.  The ensuing journey towards the showdown, coupled with Tsukamoto’s psychosexual fixations on metallic penetration and the phallic nature of the clenched fist, is an increasingly insane buildup towards a brutally violent exchange of punches. 

Like Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tsukamoto sets his sights on the transformative nature of a physical battle not just of the male figure but of the female as well.  As Tsuda grows more distant and enveloped in training, Hizuru finds herself more turned on by Kojima’s manliness, resulting in a kind of Cronenbergian transgression replete with bodily insertion of metal rods through her arms and legs.  It’s a grotesque, repulsive sight but also functions as a comment on the sexual nature of body piercing and keeps with the director’s recurring motif of metal meshing with flesh. 

Co-written by Hisashi Saito and co-produced by Kiyo Joo, Tokyo Fist once again finds Tsukamoto doing just about everything from production, editing, directing and lead acting and its indeed curious to find Mr. Tsukamoto playing the weak and ineffectual male protagonist customary to his films this time around.  What’s particularly striking about this boxing film is the particular attention Tsukamoto pays to what a single punch does to the human face.  A recurring image of a clenched fist striking the camera as red entrails splatter across the screen before opening into a blinding ball of light gives a never before seen perspective of what it means to be on the receiving end of a hit to the face.

An astonishing deconstruction of the boxing hero myth where the progression towards becoming a trained fighter isn’t positive in the end, Tokyo Fist also maintains the breakneck pace of the first Tetsuo film before kicking into hyperdrive near the third act.  This isn’t easy viewing even for seasoned Tsukamoto disciples with a clinical eye for the beauty and horror of a professional boxing injuries and as it quietens Tsukamoto only cranks up the volume to deafening levels figuratively and literally.  That said it’s also, like Tetsuo, a pure expression made by a director unafraid to put himself in the firing line no matter how messy things get.

Bullet Ballet (1998)

Tsukamoto’s fascination with the male appendage as a phallic metallic weapon of violent death and destruction, from the drill penis in Tetsuo to the cracked and broken fists in Tokyo Fist, inevitably would turn attention towards the penetrative force of the firearm.  Resuming the gritty black-and-white photography utilized in Tetsuo, Bullet Ballet follows TV commercial director Goda (Tsukamoto again) who finds his life turned upside down upon the discovery of his girlfriend Kiriko’s (Kyoka Suzuki) suicide.  Launching a downward spiral into the violent and sleazy underbelly of Tokyo city life including but not limited to young gangs and arms dealers, Goda soon grows more and more infatuated with his handgun, gradually leading towards a violent exchange of bullets and bloodshed. 

Much like Tokyo Fist, the film is a loose commentary on the way city life works against the individual and how a broken heart tends towards a self-destructive path of grief and suffering.  Goda’s journey downward seems illogical but through Tsukamoto’s lens the descent makes perfect sense.  There’s also ample room left for discourse about the disparity between the violent youngsters and how increasingly lost Goda finds himself bouncing about their underworld. 

One of the more striking montages, demonstrating Tsukamoto’s skill for cutting, is that of a pistol being fired with the explosions of bombs including but not limited to the nuclear.  Cut together with Chu Ishikawa’s droning soundtrack, it becomes an almost musical play on the rhythmical nature of a firearm in action.  As with the examination of the clenched fists striking one another in Tokyo Fist, Tsukamoto views the extension of a gun barrel as a neutral tool that becomes weaponized the moment it locks with human hands. 

Bullet Ballet finds Tsukamoto in familiar territory but unlike the first few films in the set which had a narrative forward thrust that hooked you for the journey, this one tends to meander.  Though it may have been intentional, there were times where I was as lost as the film’s hero in terms of narrative or artistic goals.  Tokyo Fist was sharp and focused whereas Bullet Ballet seems comparatively somewhat hazy.  The film’s deliberate lack of much in the way of dialogue couldn’t help but further the distance between the film and viewer. 

Even after the impending titular exchange of bullets ensues, emotionally I felt somewhat disconnected from Goda’s journey.  Tsukamoto’s work is usually engrossing but this one I felt I was standing outside the protagonist’s plight.  Still the film’s soundtrack Chu Ishikawa, the trademark hyperkinetic editing and cinematography by Tsukamoto makes Bullet Ballet a worthwhile offering.  I’ve yet to meet a Tsukamoto film I consciously disliked but some are certainly stronger than others.

A Snake of June (2002)

One of the director’s most celebrated offerings to date and among the most sex positive fictional cinematic expressions ever made by a male filmmaker, Tsukamoto’s A Snake of June is the kind of psychosexual sadomasochistic erotic film that would make the likes of even French provocateur Catherine Breillat blush.  Kinky and dripping with sexual drive, A Snake of June follows a shy young woman named Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) trapped in a sexless marriage to her overweight workaholic husband Shigehiko (Yuji Kohtari). 

Working as a telephone counselor, she finds herself besieged by photographs of herself in embarrassing sexual situations followed by phone calls from the voyeur Iguchi (played by Tsukamoto himself) threatening to expose her unless she performs sexual acts in public as he looks on from a distance.  Like Jack Horner from Boogie Nights, it remains unclear whether the voyeur/blackmailer derives any pleasure from the humiliations.  Soon it shifts gears as it becomes more about Rinko’s journey from introverted and scared business girl to naked and sexually confident nymphet. 

Shot in stark black-and-white before being color graded to soft blue, the flickering watery images look lifted straight out of the era of German expressionism including wild images like an underground cult with metallic cones on the members’ foreheads seeming closer to science fiction than a sex movie.  Neither straight sci-fi nor smut but an emotional journey of a withdrawn woman’s sexual awakening, A Snake of June posits itself initially as an erotic thriller but becomes a story of breaking free of socially accepted sexual repression.  Equally curious is Tsukamoto’s regard for the voyeur who initially exudes menace but ultimately becomes a selfless healer as he gets nothing while giving Rinko everything.

A brave, daring film, perhaps Tsukamoto’s greatest surprise in making the film was how well received it was by female critics.  Though fetishistic and deliberately playing like softcore pornography, A Snake of June unlike Bullet Ballet finds the director working with a far more engaging topic with a relatable everywoman character we can empathize with.  In every person is a small and meek Rinko, waiting to come out of her chrysalis and spread her wings for the world to see.  More than anything, it’s a film that confronts our inner urges and says it is perfectly healthy and normal to have and even indulge in them.  In any other director’s hands this could have been by the numbers exploitation trash, but with Tsukamoto A Snake of June comes across as wise about what gets us off.

Vital (2004)

Tsukamoto’s admiration for the human form in all of its physicality, sexuality and spirituality came into full bloom with his last project A Snake of June.  Though he would move away from the steamy erotic weathers conjured up by that film with his next project Vital, the film is no less engaged in gazing upon the mysterious contours of the human body.  The first film of the Tsukamoto boxed set to not prominently feature the director himself anywhere in it, Vital follows fellow Ichi the Killer actor Tadanabou Asano as amnesia stricken medical student Hiroshi.  Following an accident which claimed the life of his girlfriend Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto), Hiroshi enlists in an autopsy course and begins to notice something faintly familiar about the body he’s dissecting. 

The first crossover from film to digital photography for Tsukamoto, Vital shifts gears entirely by slowing the pace down to a crawl with elliptical abstract passages of imagery consisting of smokestack towers interspersed through the clinical icy yellow room of the autopsies.  Intercut with stark sequences of Ryoko in a kind of transcendental dance on the beach and an abandoned building with a giant rock in the epicenter, Vital finds the director operating on an entirely different rhythm than anything that had come previously. 

In addition to the great Tadanabou Asano is veteran actor Jun Kunimura as Ryoko’s bewildered and upset father wrestling with the news Hiroshi’s coursework may or may not be involving the corpse of his former love.  Of Tsukamoto’s films Vital comes as a shock by being the cleanest, most colorful and most well lit of the director’s oeuvre yet.  Whereas shaky handheld camerawork almost always defined the look of Tsukamoto’s films, here shots are on fixed, motionless camera angles and slow methodical pans.  It’s as though Tsukamoto all but abandoned the freneticism which defined his work up to this point.

Vital is a curious Tsukamoto offering for being the least violent, the least sexual and the most fleeting.  It’s also maybe the most funereal of his films, ruminating on the eternity of loss of life and how our loved ones long since gone aren’t as far away as we think.  Fans of Tsukamoto expecting the harsh, industrial and psychosexual bent of his work may come away somewhat bewildered by Vital which feels much closer to, say, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s enigmatic and eccentric surrealism than anything.  That said, it’s a no less fascinating work showing the director’s transition to a sleek new digital medium and altogether fresh approach to filmmaking.

Haze (2005)

The freedom of the digital tools of filmmaking afforded to cult Japanese auteur Shinya Tsukamoto naturally resulted in this swiftly rendered yet taut commission piece.  A forty-nine minute chokingly claustrophobic vision of Hell so suffocating you might get short of breath watching it, the ultra-low budget Haze finds a nameless man (Tsukamoto again) with nothing but a t-shirt and underwear trapped in a concrete maze of tight corridors, leaky pipes, hammers coming out of walls and sharp metal spikes.  Desperately trying to piece together where he is or how he got there, this tightly packed little short film follows the man inching his way from corridor to near immobilizing corridor with excruciatingly smothering tightness. 

If you fears include being in enclosed spaces or if find yourself easily distressed by tight corridors and ducts, then Haze will trigger every one of them before driving rusty nails through them.  Harrowing and horrifying, Tsukamoto and his co-cinematographer Takayuki Shida conjure up a nightmarish netherworld one hopes to never wake up in.  The totality of Tsukamoto’s vision is so complete there were times in this little short film where I was ready to shut it off.  One sequence of the man moving from one end of the hall to the next standing on his toes as his teeth mouth-agape clenched to a rusty pipe was so hair raising it elicited a nervous chuckle from yours truly.

One of the best and most frightening Tsukamoto films on the set, Haze works extremely well due to its minimalism which evokes vastness and the terror of being boxed in with no way in or out.  For those of you who have awakened feeling night terrors or no idea of your own surroundings, Haze explores that fear to its fullest extent.  What’s most striking about Tsukamoto’s short film is how much he implies going on behind the curtain despite how little we’re allowed to see.  Haze does so much with so very little and it’s a testament to Tsukamoto’s ability to create truly harrowing horrors almost out of thin air.

Kotoko (2011)

At the end of Tsukamoto’s Vital during the end credits came an original song sung in English by Japanese pop singer Cocco.  So pleased was the director with the result and taken in by the personality of Cocco that it was inevitable these two would collaborate once again.  Their second work together became the 2011 psychodrama Kotoko, based on an original idea by Cocco in a film presenting the singer in her first starring role as the titular protagonist: a single mother plagued by paranoid delusions and hallucinations. 

A secret self-harmer unable to mother her son who is taken away by child protective services, Kotoko finds salvation in her new boyfriend, famed novelist Seitaro Tanaka (Tsukamoto again) who allows her to vent out her violent urges upon his body in a co-dependent sadomasochistic relationship.  As her beatings become more extreme, so too does her spiral into madness and possibly murder, leaving the viewer unsure of how to feel about its most deeply disturbed protagonist and her fate.

Among the first modern Tsukamoto offerings not to feature music by Chu Ishikawa, instead leaving the canvas bare for Cocco to play on coupled with her eccentric production design, Kotoko is a unique but ultimately frustrating departure for the director.  In what seems more like a promotional tool for the pop singer’s music than a go-for-broke Tsukamoto film, as the director frequently stops the narrative to let her sing for us, Kotoko is strangely betwixt and between.  Though the film proceeds to horrify in the time-honored tradition of Tsukamoto cinema, the relationship feels underexplored and Cocco’s minimalist score of dissonant instrumentation didn’t always resonate with me.

Though Cocco is a strong lead in the role, once again the film kept reminding me of her musical talents which for this film got in the way of what they were trying to do together.  Yes its indeed interesting to see Tsukamoto allow for overt outside influences to color his work as he lets Cocco lead most of the narrative while acting her heart out in it.  But at the same time whereas Tsukamoto films are characterized by going all the way, Kotoko hesitates and arguably stumbles as it nears the finish line.  For this feverish yet musical song and dance race to the finish line, count Tsukamoto down but not out.

Killing (2018)

In the director’s first jidaigeki period piece and his most recent work, making its home video debut as the final film in the Arrow boxed set, Tsukamoto’s Killing is a subversive, ultraviolent and most surprising deconstruction of the noble samurai myth pioneered by films like Seven Samurai or Yojimbo.  Whereas Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins snuck in some of that director’s impishness into the proceedings, Tsukamoto tricks you into thinking you’re watching a traditional jidaigeki only to infiltrate it with his own director trademarks.

Starting out as a Feudal Japan set costumed drama before ballooning into an extreme exploration of the weather of the samurai sword, Killing meets up with young masterless samurai Mokunoshin (Sosuke Ikematsu) whose tranquil village existence is shaken by the arrival of older samurai Sawamura (Tsukamoto riffing on Takashi Shimura).  On a quest to recruit fellow samurai to battle the shogun, Sawamura soon locks horns with Mokunoshin who has yet to kill his first man, setting the stage for clashing swords, heavy rains and a gradual journey towards doom.

Though lensed digitally and offset somewhat by Chu Ishikawa’s electronic score, Tsukamoto’s Killing is a captivating upending of the noble samurai archetype and the lofty notion of the aged samurai bringing peace and happiness to a village which already had it.  Unlike Akira Kurosawa’s samurai dramas which present lawless worlds being rendered with order upon the arrival of the master swordsman, Killing presents violence and death the moment Sawamura shows up with much of it following him whether he intends for it or not. 

To find the former purveyor of hyperkinetic extreme science fiction horror industrial underworld of underground cinema on the swords and sandals mountains and grassy fields of the tail end of the Tokugawa period is indeed a most unusual sight.  That Tsukamoto made it all the way to the top of this hill is miraculous in and of itself.  Moreover, he utilizes the expectations and machinations of the samurai film only to turn them against themselves.  The end result is not only a truly unique samurai picture but one of Tsukamoto’s most indelible offerings yet. 

The journey which began with The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo on a long, zig-zagging yellow brick road of manic creative energy firing on all four cylinders to that of a contented contemplative artist was a fascinating one to watch and now that Tsukamoto has scaled this mountain, it’s very easy in the end to call the cult provocateur a master filmmaker at the top of his game. 

While Tetsuo: The Iron Man will remain my personal favorite of his, Solid Metal Nightmares from Denchu-Kozo to Killing has presented a most diverse body of work by a truly idiosyncratic cinematic visionary unwilling to compromise, unbending to studio pressure and unable to fit neatly inside any niche.  For all the highs and lows, the good and bad, the strengths and weaknesses encountered in this set, if you’re reading this Mr. Tsukamoto, please don’t ever change!

--Andrew Kotwicki