This article was written by UncleJellyfish, an average Toronto guy with a lot of Niche interests who aspires to be a writer someday, and has a blog here: https://unclejellyfish.tumblr.com/.
Horror as a genre is extremely malleable. What is scary or macabre to most can seem silly and absurd to others. There are tropes, cliches, and archetypes, whether involving superhuman madmen, arcane blasphemies, or the dead walking among the living. But certain stories throw out any semblance of logic or archetype, settling on a nightmarish and surreal mind-fuck that’s almost incomprehensible to the average audience but grotesquely beautiful all the same.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 cult classic Tetsuo The Iron Man is that kind of story. Released in 1989, adapted from Tsukamoto’s previous short films and filmed on a very small budget, Tetsuo , similar to works like Lynch’s Eraserhead or Kafka’s The Metamorphosis follows a simple man who is changed physically and mentally by monstrous forces penetrating his everyday routine.(Literally multiple times in this case) A Japanese salaryman and his girlfriend run over a strange, crazed vagrant while on a drive. Rather than be descent human beings and take the man to a hospital, the couple proceeds to push his body aside and make out, unaware he’s still conscious and watching. This outcast is the Metal Fetishist, named “Yatsu” by the credits, a bizarre figure who gets gratification from shoving metal pieces into his open wounds. He is the main subject of this article, and can be considered a victim who becomes a victimizer. Through bizarre means, the Fetishist has become a walking plague, able to infect any matter with a gruesome contagion that transforms anything into metal-and he’s infected the Salaryman. (The film has two sequels, but I haven’t watched and they both share almost no continuity, so this article only covers the original.)
As the Salaryman finds his body mutating hideously into robotic viscera, we are also afforded a look into Yatsu’s own nightmarish life. Flashbacks in POV shots paint a picture of a lonely broken child who was beaten by a cruel adult with a metal pipe, leading to a piece of metal being lodged in his skull. The boy’s doctor is apathetic to his patient’s condition (“Think of it like a piece of Jewelry”, he says) and the metal gradually consumes the boy’s body and mind from within, leaving only the Metal Fetishist a robotic husk fueled by trauma and addiction. There are many ways to interpret this film’s symbolism. Yatsu himself is emblematic of society’s marginalized and outcast poisoning the lives of the apathetic upperclass, forcing them to experience the suffering of the addicts, the mentally ill, the homeless. The Fetishist may represent the latent homosexuality beneath the Salaryman’s heteronormative image, slowly coming to the surface in the most gruesome way. Yatsu isn’t just seeking retribution, he is obsessed with the Salaryman, literally plotting to physically fuse their metallic bodies together. (seriously, the Salaryman’s penis turns into a working drill) Through other lenses it may warn how technology is ingratiating itself into our lives, even on a sexual level. But personally, I see the Fetishist as a symbol of suffering and how it affects our relationships.
The Fetishist is in a great deal of physical and psychological agony. He wants to share that pain with someone who’s caused him agony, to fuse and emerge as one in a “beautiful” new world where everything is terraformed into cold steel, wires, and machinery. The Salaryman isn’t the metal maniac’s only victim. Several bystanders are assimilated by the Fetishist’s powers, including a random woman turned into a zombie-esque cyborg drone, the Salaryman’s girlfriend who is forced to watch her lover mutate before taking her own life, and even the Salaryman’s cat, turned into a meowing tin ornament.
All this chaos culminates in the Salaryman’s full transformation into a monstrous cybernetic humanoid and the two Iron men duking it out in a brutal battle that takes them across town to the same junkyard the Fetishist was brutalized as a child. In some sick poetic twist, the Metal Fetishist’s story ends where it began. The Salaryman, having lost to his metal corruption, turns the tables and assimilates the Fetishist into himself. From their fusion emerges a towering mound of machinery very evocative of phallic imagery. Yatsu the Metal Fetishist, dominating the top of the monstrosity while his victim is buried beneath, vows that together, they will reduce the rotten world to metal ruin, their “love” rotting away the cruelty of humanity.
“We can mutate the whole world into metal. We can rust the world into the dust of the universe. Our love can destroy this whole fucking world. Let’s GOOOOO!”
This is a hard movie to summarize and definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s not so much a film but an experience, a psychosexual cyberpunk fever dream that has to be seen to be believed. It’s also probably the closest we’ve come to a live-action Junji Ito movie, one that captures the surreal body horror hellscape of Ito’s various manga. And all that rambling aside, it’s beautiful to watch. The makeup and practical effects designed to bring Yatsu and the Salaryman’s transformations to life are some of the most impressively gruesome and detailed you’d find in a B-movie. All in all, it’s surprising how such a disturbing, creative, and oddly tragic antagonist came from what many would dismiss as a trashy shock cult film.