Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) Special Edition
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Mono
Tartan Video, $24.99

A Snake of June (2002)
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Tartan Video, $24.99

Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto has been alternately compared to David Lynch (given his proclivity for dank, dreamlike imagery) and David Cronenberg (based on their shared fascination with grotesque physical transformation and the affect of technology on human evolution). And by working within a limited scope and relatively miniscule budgets, Tsukamoto has largely managed to maintain a handmade approach to his work, serving as writer, director, cinematographer and editor, and often producer, actor, special-effects master and art director as well. The result has been a series of offbeat films that revel in transgressive metaphoric depictions of the modern metropolis.

After making a string of Super 8 shorts that explored sci-fi and horror themes with absurd plots and shock A/V gimmicks, Tsukamoto caught the attention of Western audiences and critics in 1989 with festival screenings of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, his experimental, 67-minute, 16mm featurette. Photographed in high-contrast monochrome by Tsukamoto and Kei Fujiwara, and driven by a percussion-heavy score by Chu Isakawa, Tetsuo opens with a bang as an unnamed man (Tsukamoto) drifts through a grungy industrial zone. He staggers into a fetishistically adorned enclave of scrap metal and billowing smoke; there, he engages in a display of very-heavy-gauge body adornment as he slices open his lower leg and inserts a steel rod — making his flesh one with his obvious passion for all things ferrous.

After realizing the error of his perverse ways, the now-panicked man seeks help, but is instead run down by the car of a straight-laced salaryman (Tomoroh Taguchi) and his oversexed girlfriend (Fujiwara). At the moment of the accident, the injured man’s metallurgical obsession/infection is passed on, and the life of the unsuspecting corporate drone becomes a rapidly mutating nightmare as his body and mind are gruesomely transformed.

Tsukamoto later said Tetsuo “was based on the ’80s concept of cyberpunk. I was working with the ideas of steel, technology, machines and the complete fusion with the flesh.” Imaginative, raw and relentless, the picture finds mankind literally pursued, assaulted and disfigured by technology, and the filmmaker’s camera (and imagination) shifts into hyperdrive as our ostensible hero slips further into a hallucinatory (and humorous) world of perversion. Tsukamoto employs an array of clever production techniques (including mechanical effects, Brothers Quay-style pixilation and H.R. Giger-inspired prosthetic makeup) to depict this horrific descent, which is seemingly controlled by the tortured spirit of the deceased metals fetishist. (This is, of course, just one viewer’s reading of what frantically unfolds.)

Throughout the film, Tsukamoto demonstrates a disarming ability to render bizarre imagery laden with inky blacks, grimy textures, swirling smoke and gleaming metallic highlights. Extensive use of handheld camerawork and oblique angles — largely shot with a venerable clockwork Bolex — add energy and emphasis, while the use of black-and-white allows the filmmaker to render certain elements as abstractions, suggesting “Italian futurist design.” This is the rare film that recalls the pure cinema of Lynch’s seminal Eraserhead without feeling like a slavish rip-off.

Tartan Video’s recently released full-frame DVD is a no-frills affair, but it is an improvement over the 1998 Image disc. This edition features better contrast and detail and less dirt artifacting, as well as the new options of Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround sound.

The disc’s few extras include trailers and generous clips from Tsukamoto’s later films. The latter allow one to see how his visual style evolved, particularly in his vastly more polished color sequel, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992).

Tsukamoto’s A Snake of June expands on many of the themes explored in Tetsuo, again using a semi-narrative structure to depict two men competing for the same woman. This time, however, the story unfolds within the twisted realm of voyeurism, illustrating the sexual disconnect between a man and wife from both sides of the fetishistic equation.

Set during the steamy summer monsoon season, Snake opens as a prim suicide-hotline counselor, Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa), receives a package containing compromising photos of herself, accompanied by the handwritten observation, “Secret from your husband” — a reference to her nebbishy spouse, Shigehiko (Yuji Kohtari). Further packages of photos reveal Rinko’s deeply secret affinity for erotica, at which point her clandestine admirer (played by Tsukamoto) becomes her tormentor, compelling her to publicly act out her fantasies while directing her via cellphone. The relationship takes a turn, however, when Rinko makes an unexpected discovery about herself. Meanwhile, Shigehiko, a closet voyeur, succumbs to his suspicions about his wife and begins to follow her, witnessing her debasement and then incurring the violent wrath of her tormentor. In short, Snake is a hypnotic, often nightmarish exploration of the secret lives that can exist within a seemingly happy and committed relationship.

The film offers a series of visually arresting, stylized setpieces that present classically voyeuristic images bathed in flowing streams of rainwater and shimmering blue illumination. In the informative featurette “Shooting A Snake of June,” Tsukamoto and his creative cohorts delve into the themes, styles and cinematographic techniques they employed in making the film. Tsukamoto, associate producer Shinichi Kawahara and color timer Masaharu Oomi discuss the artistic motivations for shooting Snake in 16mm black-and-white, which they later transferred to 35mm color stock to produce an arctic, high-contrast image.

Tsukamoto also reveals his somewhat quixotic desire to modify his camera of choice — a Canon Scoopic with an integral 12.5-75mm T2.5 zoom lens — to achieve a perfectly square 1:1 aspect ratio. Attempting this feat proved impossible for the filmmakers, who eventually used the camera’s standard 1.33:1 frame; still, the test footage shown here suggests how this tactic could have substantially affected the look and feel of the picture. Also addressed are other key elements in the film’s look, including the incessant rain and water effects, the lighting strategies dictated by these effects, and the use of recurring circular motifs in the production design. Though not as in-depth as it could have been, this making-of doc is a genuine rarity, in that the filmmakers discuss their creative process — failures as well as successes — rather than simply recounting, say, personality conflicts or on-set practical jokes.

Tartan’s DVD release is also a bit Spartan, featuring little more than the documentary and some welcome sound options (though Snake is far less reliant on sonic impact than Tetsuo). However, the picture quality seems to be a reasonable replication of the original image, perhaps best evidenced by Tsukamoto’s use of macro photography, which offers a maximum amount of detail relative to film grain and the inherent softness of 16mm footage shot through 1970s optics. In all, this DVD offers refreshing evidence that talented filmmakers can still craft compelling images without employing the most modern or expensive technical methods.

— David E. Williams

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.