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MOVIE REVIEW : Tsukamoto’s Horrific Yet Humorous ‘Tetsuo’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Japanese cinema has long embraced kinkiness, but Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (at the NuWilshire) has got to be in a class by itself. Its American distributor describes Tsukamoto as “Japan’s answer to David Lynch, Sam Raimi and David Cronenberg,” and he does recall various aspects of those three directors at their most outrageous and goriest. Yet Tsukamoto, like any first-rate artist, is finally not like anybody else.

Moving at a constantly furious pace, the film is grisly yet fascinating and even darkly humorous from the get-go. A crazed young man (played by Tsukamoto), known only as Metals Fetishist, rips open his right thigh to insert a piece of scrap metal. In short order, he becomes the victim of a hit-and-run driver (Tomoroh Taguchi), identified only as the Salaryman, a typical young Tokyo businessman who the next morning discovers a metal sliver protruding from his cheek as he shaves. His living nightmare, which consumes him both asleep and awake, has begun.

Of course, “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” can be taken as fable on how in modern society we’re all turning into monstrous, destructive robots, but it’s mainly a bravura horror picture in which the relentless mutation of man into metal--the special effects are as convincing as they are unpretentious--casts a compelling spell.

Before our very eyes the Salaryman becomes a walking, hulking junk pile of scrap metal, a heap of bits and pieces and with protrusions of twisted wire and flex-hose. Each incident that the Salaryman experiences seems more bizarre than the last--especially those involving sex, which are at once funny and unsettling, to say the least. As the Salaryman and Metals Fetishist, who was not killed in the accident, square away, Tsukamoto commences to fuse the two most potent mythical images of the Japanese cinema, that of the monster Godzilla and that of the swordsman hero of period pictures to form a singularly ominous samurai for the ‘90s.

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Although “Tetsuo” (Times-rated Mature) is not for the faint of heart or for youngsters, it is not just another horrific exploitation picture. With his harsh black-and-white images and his terrific control and authority, Tsukamoto creates a world as grotty and weird as that of Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” reinforced by a growling, jangly soundtrack, and he projects a thoroughly disturbing--yet often shockingly hilarious--vision of humanity on a fast track toward self-annihilation.

‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’

Tomoroh Taguchi: Salaryman

Shinya Tsukamoto: Metals Fetishist

Kei Fujiwara: Girlfriend

Nobu Kanaoko: Woman on Subway

An Original Cinema release of a Kaiju Theater production in association with Japan Home Video/K2 Spirit/SEN. Writer-producer-director-editor-art director-special effects artist Shinya Tsukamoto. Cinematographer Tsukamoto, Kei Fujiwara. Costumes Fujiwara. Music Chu Ishikawa. Sound Asahi Sound Studio. Running time: 1 hour, 7 minutes. In Japanese, with English subtitles.

Times-rated: Mature (too intense and violent for preteens).

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