鉄男 (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989) is excruciatingly metal in every sense of the word. An intensely horrifying and fast-paced Japanese experimental horror, it tells of various characters being subjected to bizarre biological changes to their bodies involving metal. A surprise hit in part due to the emerging ‘cyberpunk’ genre at the time, as well as its 1970s and ’80s sci-fi horror influences including Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) and Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983), Tetsuo’s homegrown Japanese horror is aggressively unique.

Tetsuo’s narrative is largely secondary, “unfold(ing) like a series of hallucinations”1 with a sensation of shock value. The film follows a metal fetishist (Tsukamoto) and a salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) in a future dystopian Tokyo, who undergo metallic transformations following a series of incidents involving a car accident and a crazed woman with a grotesque metallic hand. As the metal continues to overcome their bodies, what follows is an intensely grotesque story that further emphasises an almost biological treatment of metal, told through a narrative that forgoes traditional structural acts. Tony Rayns describes the structure as “admit[ting] only a few token gestures towards storytelling… Tsukamoto has no interest in [a] reliance on orthodox, melodramatic structures; he draws no distinction between reality and fantasy,”2 conveying its loose, experimental lack of narrative and disregard for continuity. 

Tsukamoto’s directing style is uniquely his own twisted evolution of various influences, not one trained by industry experience like Akira Kurosawa (七人の侍, Seven Samurai, 1954) or Ishirō Honda (ゴジラ, Godzilla, 1954). Tsukamoto’s experimental manner of conveying his passionate love of science-fiction, monster films and horror3 bleeds its way into every facet of Tetsuo’s production, feeling like a nightmare film akin to those of experimental horror auteurs like David Lynch or David Cronenberg. Tsukamoto has extensive creative and practical control over his work, as required by the tight budget and practical constraints that Tetsuo was produced under. Cinematographer and actor Kei Fujiwara’s apartment served as the base of operations,4 an arrangement which wore down the crew. This created an antisocial atmosphere of discontent on set which caused many to gradually leave during production, requiring crew members like Taguchi to take on extra jobs such as lighting. Tsukamoto had to spread his duties, extending his personal influence over the film.5 Fujiwara also held a large amount of creative influence on Tetsuo6 yet left the production before it had ended due to creative rifts between her and Tsukamoto. Indeed, Taguchi was the only one aside from Tsukamoto left by the end of production.7

The visual effects in Tetsuo serve as an uncanny reminder of the visceral ‘realness’ of its subject matter. The characters are misshapen hunks of metal, with metallic spikes and machinery emerging from all parts of the body in an exceptionally gory yet stylistically driven manner. Tsukamoto stated that “we built up the costume gradually, adding bits and pieces until we felt it looked right.”8 This iconography is more common in animated Japanese productions, and in this sense, the presence of these traits in a live-action production seems as gratuitous as it is terrifying. As stated by Harrington, “‘Tetsuo’ is live-action – very live – and all the more disturbing for it.”9 At every second the audience has these viscerally horrifying and experimental visual effects thrust upon them, often in extreme close ups or fast movements with the intense score by Chu Ishikawa creating a sense of heightened urgency. The score in question was intentionally made to sound like “beating iron” on request from Tsukamoto to Ishikawa. Ishikawa was discovered from an industrial noise outfit10 and contributes massively to its deliberately harsh tone of blatantly aggressive energy. 

Tetsuo’s experimental horror comes not just from its gruesome subject matter, but also from its fast-paced, frantic filmmaking techniques. This bears similarities to the horror films of Sam Raimi (Evil Dead series, 1981-1992), but Tetsuo differs in many aspects. Handheld camera movement is often utilised in conjunction with quick cuts and pans before indulging in several close ups that discomfort the viewer further. It dives into the uncanny valley with fast motion and stop motion to depict sped-up movement, creating a mesmerising and unique effect.11 Mes notes that “the film’s style succeeds in telling the story almost entirely by itself” once combined in the edit, and that “Tetsuo is essentially a silent film” in the way it avoids overuse of dialogue in favour of utilising “high contrast light, over-accentuating face paint, (and) exaggerated body movements,”12 to create dynamic and striking imagery. As stated by Player, “the stylistic execution of Tetsuo is one where the mechanized process of the filmic image is also made visible,”13 cementing its status as pure experimental horror through the exaggerated transportation of the filmmaking process to the forefront of the frame.

Tetsuo is not something that will appeal to everyone. As defined by Williams, it belongs firmly in the “body genre”, films that engage in “bodily excess”, promoting an often-uncontrollable bodily physical reaction from the audience (a loud gasp, a groan, crying, laughing, or screaming). Williams argues that this is caused by a “gross” interaction, such as gory murder, sex, or melodrama,14 and Tetsuo proudly engages itself in all three. Much as Williams criticises the idea that films shouldn’t be considered ‘valid’ if they incite a bodily reaction, Tetsuo takes an almost gleeful pride in inciting these reactions. The horror of Tetsuo lies in how it threatens to overwhelm all senses of the viewer. Ndalianis, on a general statement on the “sensorium” of horror films, states that “our [senses are] being called into action…driv[ing] home messages that can be powerfully brutal and uncomfortable about the human condition.”15 This conveys Tetsuo’s heavy use of maximalist horror themes and imagery that are intrinsically tied to how the audience perceives and consumes the film itself.

Tetsuo feels intensely and dramatically passionate, echoing themes of body horror as argued by Huckvale, who states, “the horror and psychological denial we have of our own mortality, along with the corruptibility of our flesh, are persistent themes in all drama, which body horror films have, of course, intensified in increasingly graphic terms over the years.”16 Tsukamoto and Taguchi’s characters go through an intense period of physical and mental bonding, a loving relationship of sorts in the film’s twisted version of the concept. McRoy states that “Tsukamoto’s breakthrough film [can be read] as a barometer signalling a larger crisis in masculinity” (1). Through the begrudgingly accepted physical transformation of their bodies, Tetsuo paints an underlying emotional narrative surrounding how people can choose to express themselves through physical presentation. The two men almost ‘complete’ each other as the film’s narrative progresses. 

Experimenting with various filmmaking techniques to create a distinct style, Tsukamoto creates something truly special with Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Not content to sit safely in any existing horror spaces, Tsukamoto ventures out into uncharted territory, forgoing a conventional narrative and creating a film designed to discomfort, shock, and mystify. A film as manic and aggressively passionate as Tetsuo is something that can only be born out of a passion for not just horror but the personal artistic style of its director. Towards the end of the film someone proclaims, “Our love can destroy this whole fucking world!,” quintessentially encapsulating the feeling this film incites.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989 Japan 67 mins)

Prod Co: Kaijyu Theatre Prod: Shinya Tsukamoto Dir: Shinya Tsukamoto Scr: Shinya Tsukamoto Phot: Shinya Tsukamoto, Kei Fujiwara Ed: Shinya Tsukamoto Prod Des: Shinya Tsukamoto, Kei Fujiwara Mus: Chu Ishikawa

Cast: Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, Shinya Tsukamoto, Naomasa Musaka, Renji Ishibashi


  1. Jay McRoy, Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (Boston: BRILL, 2008), p. 140.
  2. Tony Rayns, “Tetsuo (Tetsuo: The Iron Man),” Sight and Sound, Issue 5 (September 1991): p. 52.
  3. Tom Mes, Iron Man – The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto (Surrey: FAB Press, 2005), p. 17.
  4. Mes, p. 49.
  5. Mes, p. 52.
  6. Mes, p. 53.
  7. Mes, p. 54.
  8. Tsukamoto, quoted in Mes, p. 51.
  9. Richard Harrington, “The Flesh Is Weak but ‘Iron Man’ Is Strong,” The Washington Post, 24 July 1992.
  10. Harrington, p. 55.
  11. Mark Player, “Media-Morphosis. Intermediality, (Re-)Animation and the Medial Uncanny in Tsukamoto Shinya’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989),” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, Issue 12 (September 2016): p. 174.
  12. Mes, p. 63.
  13. Player, p. 169.
  14. Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” in Film Genre Reader IV, Barry Keith Grant ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), p. 160.
  15. Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), p. 19.
  16. David Huckvale, Terrors of the Flesh: The Philosophy of Body Horror in Film (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2020), p. 5.

About The Author

Malachy Lewis is a postgraduate media student at RMIT University, and often writes for its student newspaper Catalyst. A fan of watching and writing about giant monsters, weird horror, screwball comedies, sentimental action and romantic blockbusters, he is currently working on a study on the technique of 'suitmation' in Japanese cinema.

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