Stars: Eric Bossick, Akiko Mono, Yuko Nakamura, Stephen Sarrazin and Tiger Charlie Gerhardt
I left Tetsuo: The Bullet Man to linger in my mind for over a week before I wrote a review and all that came out of that was that I have no idea what writer/director Shinya Tsukamoto was aiming to achieve with it. This is the third instalment in his Tetsuo series, though no less than seventeen years have passed since the last one, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, but that time doesn't seem to have added anything to what Tsukamoto wants to say. This feels like an American remake of the previous two Tetsuo movies, admittedly as filtered through my memory of them given that it's at least a decade and a half since I've seen either and I'm not entirely sure I ever finished them. It feels like someone who didn't understand took the ideas and made an English language version. Yes, English language. That's just one of a number of filming decisions Tsukamoto took that I don't fully understand. It's become a puzzle to me but one I don't really care to finish.
You'd have thought I'd set it up right. Tetsuo movies are a trip to begin with, where you need to bring an imagination to figure out what Tsukamoto is really trying to say. We arrived late, during the opening credits, so presumably lost the initial setup. Unlike most pictures, that should have helped. Not remembering much of its predecessors ought to have helped too, but in the end it just isolated questions that may be better without answers. What unfolds behind the credits may be the key, reminding of nothing less than a David Bowie industrial video, with a man in a suit dancing in front of showers of sparks, all shot in sterile high definition digital video. Why shoot in digital, about something analogue? Why shoot in colour, but make almost everything black and white anyway? Why shoot in English? Why cast a western actor in the lead? I can only assume that Tsukamoto wanted his film to look as artificial as the characters, which is a mixed blessing.
The story won't be anything new to those who have seen the predecessors, but compared to my memories of them it felt watered down. We come in on the grief of Anthony and Yuriko, a couple living in Tokyo who have lost their young son in a car accident. Anthony is an American, who sits calmly at the breakfast table while his Japanese wife shouts at him. Shouldn't he find the man who did it and kill him? As it turns out, that's all that sits in his brain. He can't forget, he can't move on, but he sings Hush Little Baby to himself every time he gets angry, to calm himself back down. As the film runs on, it succeeds less and less, and he has visions of metal. He contorts and spasms and turns into a metal man. This is all done well but when someone arrives to shoot him in the head, we're only happy that the camera stops jerking about. What follows is a background, a story fabricated to make at least some sense of the ideas Tsukamoto wants to see on screen.
This is failure one to me. I remember Tetsuo, the Iron Man being a bizarre metaphor about man's rape of nature, shot not as a hippie environmental message but as crazy Japanese cyberpunk, a triumph of imagination inspired by the otherwordly sterility of David Lynch's Eraserhead and the deviant sexuality of David Cronenberg's films. Here it has mild elements of conspiracy theory as it struggles to turn a metaphor into a conventional plot based movie. The very fact that I used a word like 'conventional' in a review about a Shinya Tsukamoto film should highlight just how far wrong he went with this one, because that's the last adjective he would ever want to describe a picture he made. Yet sixteen years after The X-Files, the back story comes across only as tired, Project Tetsuo dealing with secret experiments on human beings, artificial body creation, powers to transform. In its way the story is very nineteenth century gothic, hardly cutting edge.
What works best are the things I like least. Everything is clinical and sterile: the sets, the people, the lack of grain in the high def format. It's so primarily black and white that it's strange to keep being reminded that the film was actually shot in colour. Yet the look works, nature reimagined in brushed stainless steel. The industrial textures are cool. The smoke is shot well. The shots of Anthony in pursuit, transformed by anger into a metal monster, the only part of his body visible being a single eye, are glorious. The fight scenes are delirious transformation demonstrations as only the Japanese can make. The original Nine Inch Nails theme fits perfectly and in fact, had the plot been removed, twenty minutes of this could have made a truly awesome industrial rock video. Visually it's interesting but it doesn't feel accomplished. It feels unwieldy, kludged rather than wild and out of control. The masks and body suits are cool but there's little behind them.
Tsukamoto made a very surprising choice to shoot the film in English. I'm still trying to work out whether he did this to open up the film to a larger potential audience outside Japan or whether it was done for the domestic audience in an attempt to make it more outlandish. The dialogue is almost entirely in English but a second language English spoken by primarily Japanese speakers. While Eric Bossick, who plays Anthony, looks a little like a Japanese Bruce Campbell, he's a gaijin and so is Stephen Sarrazin, who has a brief role as his father. Surprisingly, their English is flawed too, possibly because this is the only feature film for either of them. Instead of adding surreality, the use of English as a second language just makes the dialogue sound cheesy for the most part. It's good to see Tsukamoto still experimenting with film at the age of fifty, but it's sad to see that the best ideas here are the ones that seem least satisfying, even if they work as he intended.
At one point, Tsukamoto, who plays a nameless protagonist credited only as The Guy, as he was in the second Tetsuo film, pronounces, 'Wake us up from our peaceful stupor!' This isn't really what The Guy wants Anthony to do, it's what Shinya Tsukamoto wants his films to do. For the most part he succeeds, given that he has been one of the most edgy Japanese filmmakers since the first Tetsuo, but this third instalment mostly sent us deeper into stupor. Perhaps futility is a theme, but if it is it can unfortunately be extrapolated to the film as a whole. Sure, we can throw out Eraserhead meets Beauty and the Beast tags, with maybe some Johnny Got His Gun, but that would be misleading. At the end of the day, this is an emotionally dry film with no nuance. It may be suitably artificial but it's tame and that just isn't right for a Tsukamoto picture. It's not as wild, not as original, not as gloriously out of control as his films tend to be. It's too conventional.