I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Japanese Cyberpunk: Where Man Meets Machine


by Brian Correia
April 28, 2013

Ah, cyberpunk: perhaps the greatest of the *punk genres (Although plenty would probably argue for steampunk, only the former is recognized by my spell check tool. What does that tell you? Go play Chrono Trigger or something). Nothing else quite hits the same pleasure centers as the genre's androids, dystopian technological universes, and hardcore hackers. Sometimes you just want your science fiction in violent, visceral bursts -- sensual assaults that provide minimal story and maximum freakout. Sometimes, regular old vanilla cyberpunk just doesn't hack it (pun intended). Sometimes, you need to take it to the east, where the freakouts are freakier, the noise is noisier, and the cyborgs are... borgier? If this sounds like your cup of tea, I present the masterpiece of Japanese Cyberpunk that is Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man...

Although cyberpunk originated in America (the term was coined by author Bruce Bethke in 1980 as the title of a short story), its ties to Japan are powerful. William Gibson, one of the most influential figures of cyberpunk as the author of Neuromancer, is quoted as saying “Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk,” and many American cyberpunk tales are set in or heavily influenced by Tokyo. However, the Japanese put their own spin on the genre (creatively retitled “Japanese Cyberpunk”) when they did it themselves. The most prominent form of Japanese Cyberpunk is actually an underground film movement that took place in Japan in the 1980s and became quite different from its American counterpart. Tsukamoto wrote,

"The concept of cyberpunk dates from the 1980s, when I was in my twenties and I was watching films like Blade Runner and Videodrome. I consider those two films the parents of Tetsuo. I do believe my work is slightly different from cyberpunk, though. I talk about the destruction of modern cities that are still in existence, but cyberpunk deals with the period that comes after that destruction.i
"
The hallmarks of these films are gore, sex, abstraction, and the Kafkaesque transformation of man into industrial monster. Tetsuo is lousy with all of this (especially sex – you'll never look at a drill the same again).

Tetsuo is the story of a Japanese Salaryman (a not-so-flattering Japanese term for white collar businessman) who, after a hit and run accident, is guiltily haunted by his victim and slowly transformed into a grotesque hybrid of man and metal. The often-made comparisons of Tsukamoto's films to those of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg may be facile but they're also spot-on. Tetsuo owes a lot to those directors and, like just about all underground Japanese cinema, a 1982 underground punk film by Sogo Ishii called Burst City. However, while the film wears its influences on its sleeve, it would be wrong to call it unoriginal. Tsukamoto's combination of quick cuts, stark black and white, bizarre sound effects, and eerie stop-motion animation all help to provide a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. This is a slightly incomprehensible but immensely enjoyable film.

This is not the first (or the last) Japanese work concerned with the combination of man and machine. In fact, this is a thread in a great deal of Japanese films, manga, and other works, including Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and the rest of the Tsukamoto oeuvre and has been prevalent theme in Japan since the 1960s. Perhaps the preoccupation with man's relationship with machine may be a reflection of how the Japanese view their place in the post-war world. While American artists were looking to Japan for their cyberpunk inspiration, Japan was dealing with its own place in the world. As one critic puts it,

"The cybernetic mentality that conditions these postwar fantastic narratives is in fact a rather active and almost self-torturing acceptance of machine parts into the human flesh, which drive the Japanese identity toward postwar survival and victory over the leading nations by means of radical incorporation of technology.ii"
Japan was doing very well in the 1980s, mostly thanks to technology. Video game companies like Nintendo were becoming hugely popular, as were other high-tech industries. Tetsuo is a clear response to the increasing prominence of technology and industry in everyday life – and a negative one, at that. The protagonist (who goes on to destroy the world) is an everyday salaryman. The film is shot in 16mm black and white film. Just in case those moves doesn't get his point across, Tsukamoto's tech-wary message is clear when he ends the film with “GAME OVER” instead of “The End.”

Where would a film like Tetsuo be without an appropriate soundtrack? Thankfully, cyberpunk and industrial music go together like peanut butter and jelly (remember the Matrix soundtrack?), and Tsukamoto had just the man for the job. Testsuo, like most of Tsukamoto's films, was scored by Chu Ishikawa of Tokyo industrial band Der Eisenrost. It buzzes, grinds, thumps, and does everything industrial music should do – complementing the on-screen madness like nothing else could. Some parts of the opening sequence set to Ishikawa's score, particularly the frantic shots of frazzled star Taguchi Tomorowo, have the look and feel of early MTV music videos.

In Japan's old and rich cinematic tradition, Shinya Tsukamoto stands out as a real force. The Japanese cyberpunk that he helped to create was an underground movement but its influence can be felt from the films of prominent directors like Takashi Miike and Darren Aronofsky to massively popular cinematic movements like J-Horror. Tsukamoto would go on to direct other classics like Tokyo Fist and Gemini, but with Tetsuo: The Iron Man, he fathered a style that left an indelible mark on Japanese (and American) culture.

iMes, T. Iron man: the cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto. FAB Press. 2006.

iiSato, K. 2004. How information technology has (not) changed feminism and Japanism: cyberpunk in the Japanese context. Comparative Literature Studies: cybernetic readings 41 (3) 335-354.

Brian Correia is a budding computer scientist and aspiring writer from Boston, Massachusetts who couldn't decide which hip-hop lyric to put in his byline. The top three, in no particular order, were as follows: “cooler than a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce,” “spiced out Calvin Coolidge loungin' with six duelers,” and “I got techniques drippin' out my buttcheeks.” He is on Twitter (@brianmcorreia) and Tumblr (brianmcorreia.tumblr.com) like the rest of the kids.