This is not the Iron Man from the multiplex. Shinya Tsukamoto‘s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is the heretofore unsuspected missing link between surrealism and J-Horror. Filmed in 1989, the black and white movie shows clear influence of surrealist classics from Bunuel’s seminal Un Chien Andalou, to the glacial and disturbing works of Jan Svankmajer, to near-peer Eraserhead, and possibly shades of Polanski’s Repulsion, while at the same time sharing the more-is-more schlock mentality of what’s known as J-Horror.
I assume my sophisticated readers are well familiar with the tenets of surrealism, but may be uninitiated in cult horror. J-Horror means, simply, Japanese horror movies. Athough the term is loose enough to be applied to films of Chinese, Korean, or any other Asian provenance, it is the Japanese mentality that defines the genre. Japanese horror films fall into two basic categories. The first is the ghost story, like the famous Ringu (The Ring) series, Ju-on (The Grudge), Dark Water and Pulse among the best known. Those films are slow-paced, suspenseful and usually deal with a vengeful female spirit who haunts a house, an apartment building or an accursed videotape. The most common themes are the damaging effect of social isolation, the weight of an ugly past that won’t be forgotten, and the frightening manifestations of long-repressed urges and desires.
The second kind of J-Horror is the high action splatterfest, along the lines of Ichii The Killer, Tokyo Gore Police and Meatball Machine. Those movies aim to pack in as much blood, gore, and cartoonish violence as a movie can carry. They’re usually about alien parasites, psychotic serial killers or some other farfetched idea that allows for great creativity in gross-out FX. Their popular themes are the dehumanizing (literally) effects of an industrial society, a fearful awe of science and technology, and the ineffectiveness of a uncaring urban state in which violence and evil runs rampart while the authorities are either corrupt or just plain nonexistent. These gory movies often have a morbid humor about them and are gleefully exuberant in their use of red Karo syrup.
Both of these have artistic merits that might surprise fans of American horror films, which offer little beyond the dumb pleasure of seeing unpleasant character types getting violently murdered. J-Horror ghost stories often feature beautiful cinematography, artfully deployed sound effects and chilling music. J splatter films are rarely filmed with any amount of grace but they do boast astounding technical effects. Tokyo Gore Police, for example, has some of the most amazing and imaginative prosthetic makeup work I’ve ever seen. The makeup, set and prop design, fight choreography and other technical filmmaking arts in J-Horror are among the best, and very worth seeing if you appreciate that kind of thing. Also if you appreciate new and creative ways of killing people.
The other thing that sets J-Horror apart from its American counterpart is the psychological depth. Not of the characters, who tend to be interchangeable, but in terms of the themes running through. Japanese horror movies aren’t about the scares or the violence. They’re all about insanity. In every single one, the main theme is the annihilation of the ego, the complete psychological break from reality, and the collapse of the personality. Japanese movies (and here I include the genre of anime) are a portrait of the Japanese psyche, which doesn’t seem to be a healthy one. I’ll admit I’ve never been to Japan, nor do I know any Japanese people, so I’m not one to make a serious judgement, but from the cheapest slasher movie to the acclaimed family films of Hayao Miyazaki, Japanese entertainment reflects the damages of a traumatic history. In movie after movie, brave but deeply damaged people are resigned to fighting off some inexplicable, overwhelmingly deadly invasion – be it Godzilla, ‘angels’ from outer space, ghosts, curses, or forces of nature, the Japanese are constantly under attack. The siege mentality is understandable for a small island nation that has suffered great military losses and natural disasters both in living memory and throughout its history. Add to that a deeply conservative, conformist society that still discourages emotional and personal expression, has a patriarchal view of family life and prizes hard work and sacrifice over self-expression and creativity. Horror movies are the art form that carries the full force of Japanese angst (not even going to touch manga and anime and the force of what they’re carrying.)
This current of psychological expression is what links J-Horror to surrealism. Like surrealism, J-Horror attempts to show the subconscious. Japanese horror films take us into bizarre dream worlds with their own fluid rules. For none of the movies I’ve mentioned above give a damn about the constraints of plot. Where American horror films follow narrative structures as strict and simple as a haiku, the Japanese have thrown narrative structure away entirely, prizing atmosphere and visual impact over storytelling and logic. J-Horror films often comprise entirely of loosely related vignettes, with no particular indicators of chronology or character identity. The characters tend to be alienated young people, but without anything like personality traits. They’re generic youth, who encounter the supernatural, which may or may not be the product of their own fractured minds, and they usually end up going insane and dying. They’re not the point. The point is the break from reality and sanity that they and by proxy the audience must undergo. In that sense, J-Horror shares more with the surrealists than with American populism.
Nowhere is the connection more clear than in Tetsuo, the story (a popular theme for the Japanese) of a man painfully transformed into a violent cyborg, through means never fully explained. Nothing is even remotely explained, actually. The story is the man’s increasing horror as spikes sprout out of his face, wires grow all over his body, his penis becomes a power drill, and his humanity is erased. Director Shinya Tsukamoto skillfully uses classic film techniques like stop motion and speeded-up movement. Working in black and white, he uses camera angles and editing to maximize the claustrophobia of a bleak urban environment. His work shows artistic refinement, yet he also has a very J-Horror tendency to pile on more, more, more. More violence, bigger and bigger prosthetics, pushing the story further that it needs to go. There’s plenty of spewing blood, with appropriately icky-squicky sound effects, and of course, that ineffably Japanese invention, the tentacle rape. I’m not exactly recommending this movie. J-Horror fans will be disappointed that the blood is not red enough. Art house viewers may be turned off by the unrelenting violence and depravity. Tetsuo straddles an uncomfortable middle ground between art and schlock, but it illustrates very well man’s agonizing descent into utter madness, and for cinephiles, it makes clear the DNA connecting the classics of surrealism with the crazy new world of J-Horror.