Industrial Nightmares Come to Life in Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Longtime readers know we here at Neon Dystopia like to refer to Tetsuo: The Iron Man quite a bit. However, it occurred to me recently that we haven’t given Shinya Tsukamoto’s cult series a proper review. Personally, I first learned of the Tetsuo series after watching an impeccably-edited video set to Portishead’s “Machine Gun”—an appropriately airy, detached melody that by its own right might also be considered akin to cyberpunk music, whether or not that was the intent. I felt possessed by the nightmarish imagery that lay in the clips from The Iron Man and needed to purge them from my system. So, I tracked down a region-locked double feature of Tetsuo I & II that I had to play on a desktop with a functioning CD drive (no torrenting or hacking DVD players for me, I’m afraid I’m more of a Johnny Mnemonic than a Henry Dorsett Case when it comes to computer savvy) and tripled down with Tetsuo: The Bullet Man. This week, I’ll be covering the first entry in the series.



First premiering in Japan in July of 1989, The Iron Man opens in a den teeming with metallic and electronic refuse, in which a man known as the Metal Fetishist gouges into the flesh of his leg in order to insert a metal rod between the sinews. Time passes, and when he unwraps the bandage to examine his open wound, he finds it infested with maggots. As any sane person would do, the Metal Fetishist then plays in traffic, which results in his apparent death at the hands of a motorist. After the opening credits roll (scored by a heavily industrial soundtrack), we observe another character (known only as the Man) as he shaves in the mirror with an electric razor. He discovers a metal splinter protruding from his cheek but attempting to remove it only results in a spurt of blood. Soon after, we learn through a surreal phone call with the Man’s girlfriend that they are both complicit in the accident we just witnessed.

The Man then begins his morning commute by waiting on a bench in a subway station. On the bench next to him is a woman, who is initially repulsed by the Man’s sickly behavior before she discovers a smoking, metallic husk at her feet. Enamored by this pulsing, almost-larval thing, she prods it with a pen. Hearing a scratching sound, the Man looks over and finds that the woman is furiously itching her hand, which has now malformed into a claw that appears to be some sort of fusion of flesh and metal. As the woman continues to mutate, she chases the Man deeper into the bowels of the substructure, until he is cornered by the woman. It’s never made clear how the Man escapes, but he steers himself into a garage in some sort of illness-ridden stupor, soon discovering that more of his body is turning into some sort of hybrid of flesh and metal (his ankles begin spurting exhaust fumes, like some sort of jet-powered thrusters). The mutating woman has also followed the Man, but he kills her by wrapping his arms around her so tightly that her spine breaks.

As though this film wasn’t bizarre and nightmarish enough, the following dream sequence involves the man, naked and his hands fused to the floor as his girlfriend rapes him with a long, snakelike probe in place of a strap-on. The Man then awakens from this fever dream in bed next to his girlfriend, and they soon begin to have sex in a fairly awkward manner until the mood is ruined by the Man’s continued metamorphosis, which is beginning to become painful. While his girlfriend prepares for them breakfast, the Man peels away the bandage on his face while looking at himself in the mirror and discovers that the infected splinter on his cheek has spread, consuming his cheek with hideous metallic scabs. Acting as though nothing has happened, he begins to eat breakfast erotically with his girlfriend, but all that can be heard is the sound of their silverware scraping harshly against their teeth, which drives the Man up the wall until it’s revealed that his “tool” has been transformed into a literal tool—specifically, a drill penis. It’s an obscure film from Japan—you knew there was going to be some weird sexual material in it somewhere.


Horrified by this new development (as she should be), the Man’s girlfriend attacks him as he becomes more and more machine-like, rapidly turning into what appeared to me like some kind of metal-barnacle-covered anthropomorphic crustacean. After their struggle, the Man’s girlfriend becomes impaled on his “drill”. When the Man places her body in her bathtub, her TV set comes alive, revealing their greatest sin—after running into Metal Fetishist, they stopped to see if he was still alive, but instead of taking him to a hospital or confessing to their crime, they dumped his body in the middle of the woods and promptly thereafter screwed against a tree within the Metal Fetishist’s line of sight.

After revealing the crimes committed by the Man (although at this point I feel it’s appropriate to refer to him as Tetsuo, a name derived from the Japanese word for iron), the Metal Fetishist reanimates Tetsuo’s girlfriend’s body, which is consumed with corrosion and, once the rust falls away, is revealed to be the Metal Fetishist himself. He chases Tetsuo to an abandoned warehouse in a stop-motion sequence, turning all metal objects around them to rusted scrap along the way. Tetsuo, along with the Metal Fetishist, continues to become more and more of a hulking monstrosity, and as he and the Metal Fetishist duke it out, he uncontrollably becomes a giant hunk of metal himself. Before the Fetishist can claim victory, however, Tetsuo drills him and consumes him, melding their bodies together in—well, let’s face it, it’s a tank that looks like a dick. It’s a dick tank. Permanently fused to one another, Tetsuo and the Metal Fetishist resolve to infect the entire world with their disease, referring to it as “their love”. As the ending card states, there is no happy ending—only a game over.



If you’re familiar with Japanese cinema, you might be noticing a significant number of similarities between The Iron Man and another classic, formative cyberpunk work from the late ‘80s: Akira. Having been released just shy of a year from one another, Akira and The Iron Man prominently feature characters referred to as Tetsuo (at one point or another) who, after being involved in an auto accident with a supernatural being, start mutating uncontrollably into man-machine hybrids and providing their audiences with roughly 6000% of the recommended daily dose of body horror. The Tetusos, in both cases, end up killing their girlfriends because of their transformations and seek revenge against those they believe are responsible, resulting in final showdowns that not only threaten to consume themselves but all human life.

This isn’t to say that it would seem The Iron Man is ripping Akira off, despite Akira’s manga run beginning in 1982—I would instead argue that this is a case of writer/directors Katsuhiro Otomo and Shinya Tsukamoto respectively tapping into the spirit of the times, expressing their anxieties against Japan’s own sudden and seemingly-unstoppable growth following World War II. Both seem to make commentary on the rise of hypermasculinity accompanying Japan’s industrial development (something that I as an American can somewhat relate to), but The Iron Man’s is much more pronounced, expressed through the lens of the average adult male as opposed to the tumultuous teenage emotions as seen in the characters in Akira. Phallic and otherwise sexual imagery is used throughout The Iron Man’s 67-minute runtime to grotesque effect, most often associated with the Tetsuo’s metamorphosis. In addition to everything else I mentioned, there is a non-sequitur scene in which a man brandishes a metal rod as, well, his rod, holding it close to his crotch and twisting it in what I imagine would be a fairly uncomfortable masturbation technique. All of this imagery culminates in the aforementioned tracked vehicle that shares an undeniable resemblance with throbbing male genitalia shown in the film’s final moments. From where I stand, Tsukamoto seems to be making the statement that, if left unchecked, this attitude of toxic industrialization as dictated by the all-consuming patriarchy will ultimately eat the world.

It’s clear that Tetsuo has had a hand in defining the look of aesthetically-displeasing, cobbled-together cyberpunk as a whole. There is a heavy DIY element present in this film that is also inherent in general punk culture—the special effects budget for The Iron Man seems to be next to nothing, instead using stop-motion techniques to animate rapid entropy, jet-powered chases, or trippy scene transitions. The film is in black-and-white, and it’s clear that there were probably only two or three secondhand cameras used in production—I often noticed a recurring scratch in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen during certain shots. The soundtrack, when used, is heavily industrial. And I friggin’ love all of that—my only complaint is with the sound design, which sometimes comes across as a bit cartoony, and upon a second viewing, I felt almost ruined some important moments.

However, despite its influence, fascinating construction, and overall value that has led some reviewers to label it as a part of the cyberpunk genre, I would argue that the first film in the series is more body horror than cyberpunk. I would like to draw comparisons between it and the works of Davids Cronenberg and Lynch—the latter in particular. Simply by description, you might have made comparisons between The Iron Man and Cronenberg’s own penchant for body horror; that much is obvious. But this cult classic also seems to draw heavily upon the earlier works of Lynch, the drug-fueled fever dream filmmaker himself—particularly Eraserhead, another b&w film with a limited special effect budget that comes off as a massive head trip. While not as nuanced as Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway (and to be fair, Lynch’s own mastery over dream logic that permeates an entire feature film was not set in stone by the time of The Iron Man’s production and release), The Iron Man plays out like a nightmare, oftentimes following a paradoxical logic that cannot be applied to reality.

For instance, the subway chase sequence in the film’s first act ends with the woman chasing the Man hoisting him by the throat and menacing him with her new bionic hand. The scene then abruptly ends, cutting to a stop-motion sequence of the Man limping from the depths of the subway station into the garage, wherein the woman appears again, though her disappearance from the story implied that she was perhaps no longer relevant to it. Prior to that, the Man attempts to hide from her in what appears to be a closet but turns out to be a cage of sorts, atop which the woman suddenly appears, dropping her own severed ear onto the metal mesh. For context, when I was a child I had a recurring nightmare in which I was chased by a monster and would hide myself in a closet in a similar fashion—got caught every time.

Man, fuck this shit

Even the Fetishist’s role in the story is highly inconsistent; though his ritualistic addition of metal to his form could only really be considered the most extreme of extreme body modding, in reality this would not grant him supernatural abilities. Yet somehow, out of revenge he places what seems to be something that can only be explained as a curse on the Man, and the question of his corporeal form is mercurial as if he’s in limbo until the third act. Until then, he himself only makes brief appearances, stirring inside a metal cocoon at key moments.

All of this works in the film’s favor, enhancing the hallucinatory sense of watching a terrifying and grotesque dream play out. However, I have difficulty even classifying this movie as science fiction, as there is no real science to be heard of. All the same, I highly recommend this film for all you cyberpunks out there—but prepare yourself for the madness within, and maybe don’t take too many perception-altering drugs beforehand.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man – 7/10


Also, be warned: if this article just so happened to inspire you to experience these films for yourself, obtaining physical copies legally for a low price in North America is nigh impossible. In terms of streaming options The Iron Man can be found on Vudu and Amazon Prime, The Bullet Man is on Youtube/Google Play, and Body Hammer is nowhere to be found on the cheap if you’re an English speaker living outside of Region 2. But it’s not like I’m suggesting you defy the absurd copyright laws written by our corporate overlords.

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Written by shadowlink
shadowlink is lost in a sea of information. Cyberpunk helps him cope with his constant future shock.
  1. Of course the old phallus is an ancient symbol of fertility, vitality and power, which has a special place in Japanese art over the centuries. Especially in anime films!

  2. can someone tell me where i can watch the movie?

    • It is streaming on Vudu and Amazon Prime.

  3. Your assumption of the film being about unchecked masculinity is absurd. The film is in part, by the director’s own words, about his own personal struggle. He is gay, and at the time was married with I believe 2 children. He had feelings for his wufe but had been angaged with affairs with men. The film is meant to represent his feelings of self loathing at both his sexuality and guilt at cheating, as well as his eventual acceptance of himself as gay. It also is about his own fears of the ever increasing over industrialization of the world and over realiance on technology, which as we see today is consuming EVERYONE. I think your personal beliefs have colored you interpretaion of the film, which is your choice, but the proper interpretation of the film is extant in the director’s own words as to what it means.


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