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The Films of Shinya Tsukamoto

Tuesday 18th March 2014

Jasper Sharp is in a Tokyo state of mind

Tetsuo1989 was a year of big change in Japan. The death of the country’s longest-reigning emperor, Hirohito, on 7th January, saw the tumultuous Showa era transforming into the new ‘attainment of peace’ of the Heisei era. Peace it might well have been, but stability it seemed anything but, as the final decade of the 20th century began against a background of millennial angst, post-industrial complacency, and flailing economic confidence.

These were bad times for Japan’s film industry too, with cinema attendances falling below 10% of their 1958 peak (a downwards trend that would continue until 1996) and a negligible overseas presence. The same studio system that had carried the industry through its 1950s Golden Age was a distant memory. The beginning of satellite and cable TV broadcasting and the launch of Toei’s  V-Cinema line of straight-to-video gangster and action pictures pointed to a future for the country’s cinema outside cinema itself, instead at home, and only in Japanese homes at that (although a home-viewing market on VHS was already well established for pornography and anime by this point).

Despite such prophecies of doom, 1989 marked the feature debuts of two directors who would be instrumental throughout the following decade in reframing Japan for foreign audiences through the medium of cinema: Takeshi “Beat” Kitano with Violent Cop and Shinya Tsukamoto with Tetsuo: The Iron Man – both originally released in the UK by ICA Projects, the company now better known as Manga Entertainment.

The two men couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. The former was already famous as a wise-cracking, fast-talking TV standup whose carefully-honed, loveable-rogue persona had local audiences ill-prepared for the bleak nihilism and shocking violence of his first work as a film director, in which he also took the title role as the dirtier-than-Harry lawless law enforcer. In subsequent works such as Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997), the actor-director would come to epitomize the Japanese spirit to overseas arthouse and cult audiences alike: taciturn, fearless and driven to extremes of unpredictable violence by his ambiguously righteous code of honour. Nevertheless, while Kitano hobnobbed at highbrow film festivals such as Venice and Cannes, many viewers at home were left scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss was about.

TetsuoThe case of Tsukamoto is equally intriguing, as the recent Third Window Films’ DVD/Blu-ray releases of Tokyo Fist (1995) and Bullet Ballet (2000) serve to remind us. In fact, it was the immaculate conception of Tetsuo rather than Kitano’s more generously-budgeted studio release that had the more immediate impact on the world outside Japan. Its surprise Best Film Award at Rome’s FantaFestival led to the film rapidly gaining a worldwide cult following out of proportion to the modest blip it made on more local radars, where originally it had been unable to find distribution.

Tsukamoto was another director who came from outside the film world and who, like Kitano, would go on to write and star in many of the films he directed. Unlike Kitano, however, he emerged from totally the other end of the showbiz spectrum, from the twilight world of underground theatre.

As Tom Mes details in his book, Iron Man, after graduating from university in the 1980s, Tsukamoto dabbled in amateur stage acting as a creative outlet from his first “proper” job, working at an advertising agency. This career path did at least afford him the chance to cut his teeth overseeing a number of TV commercials, all the while dreaming of a bona-fide career in feature filmmaking.

In 1985, he founded the Kaiju Theatre troupe (taking its name from the giant monster movie genre that began with Godzilla), comprised of many of the performers who would appear in the self-financed 8mm fantasy shorts The Phantom of Regular Size (1986) and Adventures of Electric Rod Boy (1987). It would not be long before Tsukamoto threw himself into the production of his first feature, a raw and chaotic mix of wire and tinfoil shot in grainy 16mm monochrome, hailed as a touchstone of cinematic cyberpunk.

Bullet BalletTalking of bullets, it is not difficult to see echoes of the young and creatively stifled Tsukamoto in Bullet Ballet, in his central turn as wage-slave with a superficially glamorous job in media that leaves him cut off from the altogether grittier reality of life on the surrounding streets. It is the inexplicable suicide of his fiancée that jolts him back to life, as it were, with his newly developed unhealthy firearm obsession and a burning desire for revenge a the group of juvenile delinquents, leading us into a real-life urban nightmare, shot throughout in darkly beautiful stygian shades of black and white.

Aside from the director’s visual and aural bravura, with near subliminal montage sequences and disorienting, fragmentary narratives adorned with post-synched dialogue and sound effects, and the harsh, onomatopoeic scores of Ishikawa Chu’s raucous industrial outfit Der Eisenrost, what Bullet Ballet shares with Tetsuo is an elevation of Tokyo from mere background scenery to a state of mind, in which the central characters’ inner universes become indistinguishable from their outer ones.

Tokyo FistIn the decaying, post-industrial setting of his electrifying debut Tetsuo, mind, flesh and city become as one, as the body of the titular character is overwhelmed from within by iron and chrome in a surreal series of low-fi but remarkably effective stop-motion animation sequences. Meanwhile, in Tokyo Fist (which unlike Tetsuo and Bullet Ballet is shot in nightmarishly expressive colour), the ordered everyday world of steel and concrete of its mild-mannered salaryman is rendered prison-like as cold blue geometrical abstractions. When his wife is purloined by a pro-boxing former acquaintance of his, the resulting tug-of-love is played out with bone-crunching thuds in liberating explosions of crimson as, beneath his white-collar exterior, he discovers his inner animal.

In Tsukamoto’s films, one can see elements of the gleaming futuristic metropolis celebrated by the likes of Ridley Scott in Black Rain, partly shot in Osaka, and released in the very same year as Tetsuo. We can add a dash of Taxi Driver to the Bullet Ballet mix too, in the film’s portrayal of the grimy demimonde beneath the gleaming skyscrapers (the director-as-star even has his own Travis Bickle moment in the bathroom mirror).

Beneath the orderly millpond surface calm of modern-day Tokyo, Tsukamoto suggests a dark mirror underside that seems in imminent danger of bursting forth, a suggestion that the stifling tranquillity of the Heisei era is a fragile illusion that could rupture at any point.

Anime had depicted this antagonism between the forces of order and chaos before, in titles such Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Wicked City (1987) and, of course, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), the film which started it all – certainly as far as Western audiences are concerned.

TetsuoIt is well to remember that Tetsuo and Akira turned up on UK shores around the same time, circa 1990-91. Both feature protagonists named Tetsuo (“an amusing coincidence”, as Tsukamoto himself observes in Mes’ book), and both were key in launching a new generation of international fandom for Japanese cinema of a very different kind from that which went before.

The hyperrealism of the “cartoon” Akira and the cartoonishness of the live-action Tetsuo struck Western viewers unaccustomed to such mould-breaking cinema with equal force, and it is no real surprise to note that Manga Entertainment was responsible for the subsequent releases of both Tsukamoto’s big-budget colour rerun of his debut, Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer (1992) and his later Tokyo Fist.

The established generation of Japanophiles versed in Ozu and haiku may have thrown up their hands in disgust, but to fresh eyes, such celebrations of obliteration and decay yielded their own poetry more fitted to the age.

Japanese cinema was back on the map. All hail the new flesh!

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo is now available on a double-movie Blu-ray from Third Window Films.

Buy it now


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