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'Tetsuo: The Iron Man' (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 24, 1992

As surreally weird as "Eraserhead" and as intense as a Novocainless tooth extraction, Shinya Tsukamoto's "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" is sci-fright as only the Japanese can do it. Funny thing, though: They usually do it through animation. "Tetsuo" is live action -- very live -- and all the more disturbing for it.

It begins in an abandoned factory with a young metals fetishist slashing his thigh open and inserting cable into his leg; as he leaves, he's hit-and-brushed by a car being driven by an office worker who wakes up the next morning to find a metal whisker growing out of his cheek. Soon, metal scabs start appearing all over his body.

Naturally, he's disturbed, more so when a commuter turns into a bizarre metal-tentacle-encrusted creature and starts chasing him with the passion of a Terminator. To make things worse, our hero soon starts having sexual fantasies even more bizarre than his reality, and they start coming true. All this wrecks the romance with his live-in girlfriend, particularly when his loins become home to a huge rotating drill.

Eventually the fetishist and the office worker -- by now both metal makeovers with a telepathic bond -- engage in a surreal battle, only to meld into one gigantic cyber-junkpile and turn their attentions to the rest of the world. Talk about metalmorphoses!

All this gets played out in 67 of the most relentlessly intense minutes in recent film history. There are Western references -- David Cronenberg's early virus films, David Lynch's wayyy-off-kilter world view, Sam Raimi's frenetic camera work and editing, the stylized framing of silent films -- as well as Japanese ones (samurai and mutant monster films, stylized traditional theater, explicit adult comics, a melodic industrial music score). But the stew is all Tsukamoto's: He not only wrote, directed, filmed and edited "Tetsuo," he also designed the special effects, including the worker-transformed-into-Tin Man. Tsukamoto also played the metals fetishist.

Shot in startlingly clear black and white, "Tetsuo" has a nightmarish hyper-reality about it, feeling like a cartoon, but more disturbing for not being one. There's very little dialogue and none is really needed in a noisy film in which you have no idea what's going on but can still follow it, albeit by hanging on for dear life. Hardly a big-budget blowout, "Tetsuo" was filmed in 16 millimeter and reflects the director's urgency. It's too easy to interpret the plot as a commentary on sexual anxiety (the one mating scene makes David Lynch look like Disney) or runaway technology (we're all headed for the scrap heap), AIDS and nuclear Armageddon, but it's also apparent that in Tsukamoto's world, transformation hurts like hell. Even to watch -- check for bruises on leaving the theater.

"Tetsuo: The Iron Man" is unrated but is clearly not for children.

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