Shinya Tsukamoto is one of cinema’s most daring auteurs, willing to tackle any number of dark subjects through a multitude of genres, and Arrow Video’s new box set; Solid Metal Nightmares: The Films of Shinya Tsukamoto will surely show you that in spades!
Starting things off, Disc 1 (of 4 total) contains Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), and The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo (1987).
Tetsuo: The Iron Man features Tomorô Taguchi as a businessman that has the misfortune of committing vehicular homicide on the metal fetishist (Tsukamoto, who as you will see acts in nearly all of his films), a strange vagrant that is slowly becoming more machine than man… a condition he can spread like a disease as our hero soon comes to realize, as not only is he becoming a cyborg (complete with a whirling drill for a cock) but those around him are too… and they are out for his blood… or oil… or some unholy combo of the two… thanks to the fetishist who still lives!
Because everyone digs on comparisons, the best way I can describe Tetsuo: The Iron Man is picture David Lynch and David Cronenberg sitting down and watching an episode of Ultra Q and saying “We could totally get our fuck on like this!” Yup, that’s exactly what it’s like… any film scholar will tell you it is that thing I wrote, verbatim!
As you may guess from the above nonsense, this film has two very strong things in it’s favor; it looks amazing and it’s weird as all fuck. Shot in black and white, the world of Tetsuo is a chiaroscuro dreamscape filled with endless tubes, wires, and scrap metal… it also has scads of kink, homo-eroticism, body horror, and kaiju-esque mutant monster fights… in other words, it’s Grade-A freakin’ awesome and truly one of a kind!
Bottom line, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a flick you simply do not want to miss in any way, shape, or form if you dig on cyberpunk and psychotronic cinema!
Tetsuo II: Body Hammer switches focus to wealthy, mild-mannered family man Taniguchi Tomoo (a returning Tomorô Taguchi) is in a bit of a shitty spot. Buff metal fetishists have kidnapped his son, and he has no idea why… but he soon finds out, as when he finally catches up to those sons of bitches he grows a gun like appendage, with which he accidentally turns his offspring into bloody chunks… no “Father of the Year” mug for you Tan my man!
Due to current events, our hero allows the fetishists, lead by a mad scientist (Torauemon Utazawa) and his second in command (the fetishist from the first film, again played by Tsukamoto), to attempt to harness his latent power which has the unexpected side of effect of turning Taniguchi’s body into a living weapon comprised of all manner of biomechanical firearms. Will he be able to defeat his makers and foil their evil schemes, or will he turn to so much rust?
Tetsuo II: Body Hammer has a noticeably more traditional narrative flow than it’s predecessor, and a whole lot more money has been thrown at it… but make no mistake, this is the same slice of bat-shit awesomeness we got before, just in a larger serving-size… and in color.
All of the blood spray, scrap metal, violence, and inexplicably bizarre transformations all return, though for how much more blatantly homoerotic this flick is than the first entry (which is saying something), there is less of an overtly sexual presence here with next to no outre penetrations unless you count the body bullets that fire non-stop in some scenes… oh for fuck’s sake…
A very rare example of a sequel being nearly as great as the original, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer is a wild ride into the heart of cinematic insanity, full bore, and with no brakes, and you’ll scream with devious delight at the audacity of this cyberpunk fever dream!
The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo concerns the adventures of a young man with an utility pole sprouting from his back dealing with a trio of vampires (two played by Tsukamoto and Taguchi) who zoom around the suburban landscape on biomechanical devices causing all manner of trouble for the citizenry.
Utilizing the exact effects techniques Tsukamoto would bring to the table in Tetsuo: The Iron Man two years later, Denchu-Kozo is akin to a live-action anime chock full of explosive burst of kinetic action, vampires, a beleaguered hero dealing with strange powers, flashing swords, time travel, and a device that can block out the sun ensuring those fang bangers are on easy street!
That is a lot of crazy to cram into a forty-five minute runtime, but Tsukamoto does it well… so much so that this is easily one of my favorite, non-Tetsuo films included in this collection.
As for special features, first up we get audio commentaries for all films provided by by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes that cover the film’s productions in great detail and enthusiasm. After that we get brand new visual essay on the films and style of Shinya Tsukamoto by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, and archival interviews with Tsukamoto discussing each film on the disc. Bringing up the rear we get trailers for both Tetsuo films, and image galleries for all three films.
Disc 2 brings us Tokyo Fist (1995) and Bullet Ballet (1998).
Tokyo Fist tells the story of wimpy company man Tsuda Yoshiharu (Tsukamoto) who lives in sexless existence with his girlfriend Hizuru (Kaori Fujii). This all changes when Tsuda’s pugilist friend Kojima (played to perfection by Tsukamoto’s brother Kôji Tsukamoto, himself a one time boxing hopeful) enters the picture and excites primal desires in both Tsuda and Hizuru, with the former taking up boxing training, and the later becoming a piercing fetishist.
What follows is an explosive blast of Tsukamoto’s trademark monochromatic based color schemes, frantic hand-held camera work, and insane levels of blood spraying ultra-violence.
In a story reminiscent of Fight Club (who’s film adaptation came after Tokyo Fist), we witness a story of primal passions played across a cold, uncaring cityscape. This passion represents itself as violence and pain, and both of them are presented in a highly unrealistic, yet aesthetically dead-on manner that emphasizes the base elements of the story and it’s characters as they give into their desires and impulses.
At the end of the day Tokyo Fist is a hyper-violent, highly watchable dissection of the rushing pulse (doubly driven home by Chu Ishikawa’s pounding soundtrack) that lies in the “everyman” that society does everything it can to crush, a theme that is also featured in Bullet Ballet which we will discuss next!
Goda (Tsukamoto) begins one of those classic downward spirals that all the kids are into these days after his girlfriend Kiriko (Kyoka Suzuki) commits suicide via gun shot with nary a clue as to why. That journey takes him on a path that finds him doubting his masculinity, becoming obsessed with obtaining a gun, and caught between rival youth gangs (some of whom are secretly company men like Goda) on the streets of Tokyo!
At it’s core a story of hope and redemption via violence, Bullet Ballet is stark, chiaroscuro, and brutal. As Goda makes the transition from salary man to street thug we learn that even a “normal” member of society can become an outsider as much as the punks he’s trying at first to destroy, then partially emulate.
If there’s a negative here it’s that as far as characterization goes, things are a bit lighter than normal for a Tsukamoto film, which makes their nihilistic adventures resonate maybe a tad less than it could if they were a tad more fleshed out.
Bullet Ballet is a deep dive into the psyche of someone rebelling against society, and his preconceived notion of where he belongs in said culture, coming to grips with the true feelings that rage inside and it’s a fascinating, if slightly flawed watch.
Kicking things off for bonus features on disc two are audio commentaries for each film by Mes, followed by a series of archival interviews with Tsukamoto about the same. After that we get a live performance of the Tokyo Fist theme, a music video for Bullet Ballet’s theme (both pieces of music composed and performed by Ishikawa), and a series of trailers and image galleries for both films.
Next comes Disc 3 which contains A Snake of June (2002), Vital (2004), and Haze (2005).
A Snake of June concerns Rinko Tatsumi (played expertly by Asuka Kurosawa), a phone operator for a suicide prevention center who leads a rather mundane, sexless life. Well, that doesn’t last long as she soon receives a package containing photographs of her masturbating.
As more packages arrive, Rinko is lead to believe that the mysterious sender is a man who’s life she helped save who wants in on our heroine’s sexual awakening by means of a cell phone and earpiece through which he can guide Rinko through one humiliating act after another under the auspices of giving her what she truly desires. Will the stranger’s endgame destroy Rinko’s world, or strengthen it?
A Snake of June is pure Tsukamoto through in through, both visually and in tone and intent.
Starting with the visual, along with all of the hand-held bravura and inventive framing we get a film with a unique, monochromatic color palette… every image is saturated in blue which not only presents a cool, detached aesthetic to the affair, but also emphasizes the rain-drenched environments of the film’s metropolitan setting.
Of course that aforementioned “wetness” serves two purposes, conjuring the fluids of sex itself, as well as a washing away of the repression under which Rinko lived up to the point of her secret admirer’s intrusion into her existence… it also plays a part in her husband’s existence as well as he works through some truly bizarre sexual hang-ups.
Along the way, we also get Tsukamoto’s views on gender roles, society’s negative views of sex, and of course the previously mentioned repression. Also the film displays a dysfunctional, yet incredibly honest love story as Rinko’s stalker genuinely cares for her, and wants her to be happy but his methodology is outrageously twisted… though the fact that the only consequence of not complying with the mysterious man is having the fact that she has a sexual side exposed to her cleaning obsessed husband makes her compliance in these acts partially of her own intent (though again, the repression and shame of Japanese society is a factor as well).
Of course this being Tsukamoto you can expect some startling imagery, and the presence of a masked sex cult that gets there jollies watching people drown fit that bill to a “T”!
A Snake of June is a triumph of both narrative and aesthetics, and proves that Tsukamoto can handle the erotic thriller genre in his own unique and wonderful way!
Vital tells the story of Hiroshi (Ichi the Killer‘s Tadanobu Asano) who finds himself only having fragments of his memory left in tact after a car accident that took the life of his girlfriend. Going off his past career choice, Hiroshi begins medical school from scratch, even though he had abandoned that path pre-accident. Will our hero piece together the events that lead to the crash, and when he does, what secrets will he expose?
Vital presents a mystery as stated above, but it’s the way that Hiroshi must work through that mystery that gives it’s film it’s visceral punch. Our hero begins a new autopsy in his classes that begins to fire his synapses… the autopsy of his late girlfriend, and rather than being emotionally destroyed by this, he actually thrives.
As is Tsukamoto’s way, we get contrasts aplenty with the dank, industrial medical college autopsy rooms contrasted with the lush Okinawan countryside. Both are blended to perfection, and the use of warm and cool colors convey the narrative’s changing moods with great skill.
Also, the film contains many realistic autopsies, and the effects work on these scenes is top-shelf as they present the human body as both a complex and beautiful collection of intertwining forms, as well as a puzzle that must be solved, all with practical special effects wizardry.
Of course this type of affair is only going to be aided and abetted by it’s actors, and to that end Asano is the perfect combination of ethereal, haunted, and stoic as our amnesiac, lovelorn hero. His entire performance seems as though he is travelling through a dream… at times a nightmare, from which he can not wake.
Vital is Tsukamoto at this most poetic; a film comprised of quiet performances, and a heady combination of beauty and what could be repulsive visuals in a less skilled hand, and while not as viciously kinetic as the works that came before, it’s nevertheless pure Tsukamoto through and through!
Haze, another short film from Tsukamoto, spins the yarn of a man (Tsukamoto) who wakes to discover himself bleeding out in a dark, industrial hellscape. With no idea how he ended up in this nightmare, he journeys on through various torturous locales encountering others who are in a similar predicament, and although he tries, escape from this realm seems impossible.
Claustrophobic, dark, and containing enough disturbing imagery for a dozen feature-length films, Haze is a solid gold winner of a fright flick, though one with a moral at it’s core. there are also fascinating parallels to the Buddhist concept of hell for those that wish to explore such things.
This is pure Tsukamoto in an element he perfected in his earlier works and is easily one of the highlights of this collection for your’s cruelly.
As is the way with this set, first up we get audio commentaries, once again with Mes, followed by archival interviews with Tsukamoto about the creation of all three films as well as archival “making of” featurettes for each.
Next comes footage from Vital’s world premier in Venice, as well as a look at the film’s effects and a music video for the film’s theme song (performed by Cocco, who we will discuss further in my review of Kotoko below).
Also included are trailers for all three films, and image galleries for A Snake of June and Haze.
Disc 4 brings us: Kotoko (2011) and Killing (2018):
In Kotoko, the titular character (played by Japanese pop songstress Cocco, who also concocted the film’s story) is handed the shitty end of the stick by life; she’s a single mother who has been deemed unfit to care for her baby, and she suffers from a condition where at times she sees two of everything and is unable to determine which is the real McCoy!
This is rapidly affecting her mental health which she tries to stabilize through a combination of self harm and singing to herself… but ultimately that does little to deter her tumble into madness!
Speaking of that madness, Tsukamoto’s choices of jittery motion juxtaposed with more quiet shots, not to mention the films contrasting color schemes (Kotoko’s candy-color apartment, to the lush greens and blues of Okinawa, to stark white institution walls all swirl throughout the film), help indicate Kotoko’s rapidly fluctuating states of mental health… though the superb acting of Cocco does a ton of the heavy lifting there as well.
Now what may come as a bit of a surprise to you cats n’ creeps; Kotoko ends up being bit of a relationship yarn as well, as Kotoko develops a relationship with her neighbor Seitaro Tanaka (played by Tsukamoto himself) that ends up being a tad (read: very fucking) difficult to watch at times as our heroine has some anger issues that Tanaka let’s her work out upon his flesh.
Speaking of difficult, there is one sequence in this film that will be extra-special hard to take for you parents out there, so viewer beware!
Kotoko is an incredibly disturbing, though often beautiful, psychological drama that contains scenes of shocking horror imagery among it’s gut-punching tale of a fractured woman’s deep dive into psychosis, but in the end it’s a cinematic journey very much worth taking.
Killing is the tale of young ronin Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) who spends his days pitchin’ in on a farm in a small village since no current war equals no need for samurai. As you may guess, that isn’t the sitch for long, and soon an impending war is knock, knock, knockin’ on Tsuzuki’s door!
To that end, our hero is recruited by fellow ronin, Sawamura (Tsukamoto himself, once again), to help fight in a civil war… but they have a little somethin’ somethin’ to take care of closer to home; namely a group of nomadic bandits who decide to come a-callin’ on the village Tsuzuki calls home, where those ruffians proceed to rape and murder!
The long and short of Killing is that violence is a terrible thing, and can only lead to more of the same. Tsuzuki is well versed in the manners and postures of being samurai, but his existence has been free of strife until Sawamura blows into town. The older samurai remembers times of war and killing, and is ready for them to begin again… and as status dictates, he expects Tsuzuki to follow suit.
and that leads to the bandits, whose action are dictated by the attitudes of Sawamura. Things get out of hand, violence rears it’s horrible head, and then the shit hits the fan in ever increasing amounts.
Of course all of this is brought to life through the brilliant mind of Tsukamoto who showcases the violence in grizzly detail, while still focusing on the natural peace and beauty of the lush countryside in which the film is set. Killing is truly another masterpiece of compare and contrast and the shared world those elements inhabit, and all these year’s later still showcases the differences in ideology between the younger and older generation he explored in Tetsuo the Iron Man.
As for special features on disc four, we get two more audio commentaries from Mes, a new career spanning interview with Tsukamoto (as well as an archival chat focusing on Kotoko), and trailers & image galleries for both films.
Everything above comes in a package featuring new artwork by Gilles Vranckx, Gary Pullin, Ian MacEwan, Chris Malbon, Jacob Phillips, Tommy Pocket, Peter Strain and Tony Stella that also includes a double-sided fold-out poster, and an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by film historians and authors Kat Ellinger, Jasper Sharp and Mark Schilling (and it’s a beautiful book indeed)!
I can sum up why this set belongs on your shelf right fuckin’ now: Shinya Tsukamoto is a genius with plenty to say… plus he isn’t afraid to take things very, very dark, and that makes this a five star meal that will be savored for years to come by lovers of off-beat cinema!