Tetsuo: The Iron Man

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Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Theatrical release poster
Directed byShinya Tsukamoto
Written byShinya Tsukamoto
Produced byShinya Tsukamoto[1]
  • Shinya Tsukamoto
  • Kei Fujiwara[1]
Edited byShinya Tsukamoto
Music byChu Ishikawa
Kaijyu Theatre[2]
Distributed byKaijyu Theatre
Release date
  • 1 July 1989 (1989-07-01)
Running time
67 minutes[1]
Budget$100,000 to $130,000

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (鉄男, Tetsuo, 'iron man') is a 1989 Japanese science fiction horror film directed, written, produced, and edited by Shinya Tsukamoto. The film centers around an unnamed Japanese salaryman who wakes up to find pieces of metal sprouting from various parts of his body and becomes haunted by visions of metal-oriented sexual fantasies. As the man steadily becomes a hybrid of man and machine, he develops a connection with a victim from a hit-and-run accident, who is undergoing a similar transformation.

The film was the first feature-length film by Tsukamoto after he spent his youth creating film shorts and entering Japanese experimental theatre. Through his theatre work, he met like-minded people to perform in plays and later short films such as Kei Fujiwara and Taguchi. Filming proved to be difficult with much of the cast and crew abandoning the production with only Taguchi and Tsukamoto arriving on set to finish the film. After winning the Grand Prize at the Fantafestival in Italy, the film grew in popularity in Japan, becoming a top seller on home video for non-mainstream cinema.

Outside Japan, critics compared the film to the work of directors Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg, and David Lynch while still finding the film to be an original film that was difficult to parse. Tsukamoto directed a sequel titled Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. In 2012, Michael Brooke of Sight & Sound declared the film "remains one of the most pulverisingly effective sci-fi horror films of the past quarter of a century."[3] In Japan, the film magazine Kinema Junpo included the film on their list of top 200 Japanese films in 2009.


Note: Tetsuo: The Iron Man does not have a conventional narrative.[1] This plot synopsis is adapted from a home video release and a synopsis in Sight & Sound by Tony Rayns using notes from the director.[1]

After a young man inserts scrap metal into a self-inflicted wound on his thigh, he becomes a victim in a hit-and-run accident. The driver, a typical salaryman, later finds a metallic thorn protruding from his cheek while shaving. On his way out to a subway station, he is attacked and chased by a woman who sprouts metallic tentacles. The man later finds metallic scabs on his own skin.

At home, the man sleeps next to his girlfriend and has a dream in which he is sodomized by organic metal machinery. Waking up, he either imagines or discovers that metal is taking over his body. When he attempts to have sex with his girlfriend, his penis becomes a metallic drill which leads him to lock himself away from his girlfriend. She approaches him saying she is not afraid of him, but as they have sex with his transformed penis, she stabs him in the neck. Falling into unconsciousness, the man regains consciousness sometime later to find his girlfriend has impaled herself on the drill, killing her.

Meanwhile, the victim of the hit-and-run accident recalls memories in the form of videos looping, recalling the moment of the accident and a doctor who tells him they discovered metal in his brain. The hit-and-run victim realizes he has telepathic powers and reaches out to the man and his girlfriend initially to menace them, but then to promise the man a "new world of metal".

The man flees in a panic as a local tramp meets the car accident victim and starts beating him. The man and the victim eventually meet again finding their entire body more metal than flesh. The victim's tone changes from anger to love and says he needs to merge with the man as he is overcome with rust that is attacking his body. The two merge into a giant metallic monster, and take to the streets of the city convinced they can mutate the entire world into metal.


Cast adapted from the Sight & Sound review.[1]


A Japanese man in a bucket hat
Akira Kurosawa
A Japanese man looking to the left
Jūrō Kara
Early influences on Tetsuo: The Iron Man for Shinya Tsukamoto included director Akira Kurosawa and stage director Jūrō Kara.

Background and pre-production[edit]

As a child, Tsukamoto read Shōnen tantei dan and other children's books by Edogawa Ranpo in late grade school and early high school, finding himself interested in what he described as the "dark edges" of the books. He recalled, "I had similar feelings from reading his books as leafing through SM magazines I read when I was in high school." [4] Tsukamoto was also a fan of kaiju series as a child, seeing the Gamera and Godzilla films and the television series Ultra Q.[5] Tsukamoto spoke specifically being interested in Ultra Q noting the mismatched elements of the show gave it a surreal flavor, which he felt led him to become interested in surrealism in high school.[6] One day while he was still in school, Tsukamoto's father brought home an 8mm camera which Shinya soon inherited.[7] He began making short and feature-length amateur films with his brother by 1974, which were initially monster movies.[8] He began expanding his film input in high school, with the first non-monster movie he saw being Bitterness of Youth by Tatsumi Kumashiro, American films and the works of Akira Kurosawa.[9] Tsukamoto stated that from Kurosawa he learned that one could work with light to manipulate the images on film, which Tsukamoto's biographer Tom Mes stated would anticipate his work in Tetsuo: The Iron Man.[10] Tsukamoto has since had very mixed feelings on these early films, even only letting his wife see them in 2002.[11] Tsukamoto became frustrated with film work towards the end of the 1970s and began focusing on stage work while entering University.[12][13]

Tsukamoto had performed and directed plays in high school, finding that they were "quite conventional" and that he preferred to do more experimental theatre.[13] Tsukamoto specifically spoke about the work of Jūrō Kara as an influence, whose work often dealt with themes such as matricide and incest.[14] Tsukamoto appreciated working in plays as it led to immediate feedback from audiences, who started out as spectators, who would want to work with him. Among the early people who reached out to Tsukamoto was Nobu Kanaoka who had roles in Tsukamoto's 1980s short films and Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Working with enthusiastic supporters led to Tsukamoto being able to make films and plays without outside funding and outside influences from production companies.[15] Following graduation in 1984, Tsukamoto entered into advertising agencies which he hoped would give him access to professional film equipment.[16] It took 18 months before Tsukamoto was allowed to direct commercials. He recalled that in those eighteen months he was almost never at home, and that working as a corporate employee for long hours was a major influence on Tetsuo: The Iron Man.[17] Tsukamoto was able to return to doing theatre work in 1985 where he created the Kaiju Shiata group.[17] His plays retained the experimental style of his previous stage work, and connected him with Kei Fujiwara, who had been a member of Jūrō Kara's company. Fujiwara would appear in Tsukamoto's later shorts as well as Tetsuo: The Iron Man, even letting him film large portions of it at her home.[18] By 1986, Tsukamoto quit his job at the Ide Production advertising company, with the intention of returning to filmmaking.[19]

Tsukamoto's first work was The Phantom of Regular Size, a short film made with members of his Kaiju Shiata group, about a salaryman whose body eventually turns into scrap metal. The film was shot in less than a week. Among the cast was Tomorowo Taguchi, who had met Tsukamoto when he was performing in a theatre production that Tsukamoto had seen. They two collaborated on a play titled The Adventure of Denchu Kozo and later was cast in this short as a salaryman.[20] Mes noted the short had themes and elements that would be expanded upon in Tetsuo: The Iron Man such as a woman with a metallic claw hand and the adverse effects of city life on people.[21]


Tetsuo: The Iron Man was shot back to back with the short film The Adventure of Denchu Kozo. Among the major changes from his short film work, was changing from 8mm film to 16mm, which would make the film suitable for theatrical presentation. The film was initially going to be made as an additional short film, at about thirty minutes in length.[22] The choice was made after seeing some Derek Jarman films which were shot in black and white and when blown up to 16mm and 35mm projections, Tsukamoto felt the excessive grain produced interesting imagery with heavy film grain. The black and white also provided leverage with ratings certificates, since the blood would be hard to decipher. He then purchased a Canon Scoopic 16mm camera with 10 reels of black and white film stock and began production on the film in September 1987.[23]

The film's narrative was built upon his previous short The Phantom of Regular Size, with actors Tomorowo Taguchi, Nobu Kanaoka, Tomorowo Taguchi and Tsukamoto portraying similar roles to the short. Other actors included Naomasa Musaka and Renji Ishibashi who had worked in major film studios such as Nikkatsu and Toei in the 1970s. Tsukamoto initially sent him a fan letter, and then asked him to appear in the film.[23] The costumes in the film were made from scrap metal and small parts of electronic appliances stuck onto the actor with double-sided adhesive tape. This led to issues with Taguchi who had metal added to him until Tsukamoto felt it looked right, only to find that the outfit was so heavy that Taguchi could not get up from his make-up chair. Initial tests led to Taguchi being in great discomfort, saying that at the end of a shooting day, his skin felt like sandpaper. As filming progressed, Taguchi's make-up and suit were refined so he could easily take off and on the suit.[24] Like his 1980s short film work, a large portion of the film was shot in Fujiwara's apartment.[22] Exteriors of the film were shot at Kawaguchi iron factory, north of Tokyo.[25] On traveling between locations, the cast members could not take their make-up off which Tsukamoto recalled led to "People would look at us like we were crazy."[25] Tsukamoto explained that the cast and crew "thought this film would be a parody." and that since they only had time to do things in one take, they ended up performing in what he described as a "more exaggerated, over-acted style, which is easier."[25] Arguments would often erupt on set between the cast, crew as well as Fujiwara's neighbors. Fujiwara stated that the two had always argued, but it got more difficult as they began working on films. Taguchi said that nearly every day they would lose a crew member, and towards the end only actors were showing up, leading to the cast members filling in for various technical roles.[26] When Tsukamoto had to appear on screen, he would set up his shot and then have Fujiwara operate the camera.[25] Fujiwara is credited in the film as an assistant director, costume designer, and the second director of photography.[27] After four months of shooting, Tsukamoto began developing what footage he had in the editing room, which he had access to for free from former co-workers at Ide.[25] While editing, Tsukamoto realized he needed more material and went to film pick-up shots which continued until the end of 1988.[26] Tsukamoto ran out of money while filming, and made a trailer to show to potential film distributors to gain further funding. Through his connections at the PIA Film Festival and F2 distributing, Tsukamoto connected with Japan Home Video who were able to invest money to get the film completed.[28] Cinefantastique suggested the final budget of the film was approximately $100,000 while The Japan Times stated the budget was 13 million yen.[25][29]


Tsukamoto created a rough cut of the film in December 1988 which ran at 77 minutes in length. Tsukamoto found himself emotionally and physically exhausted during the editing process, especially on hearing loud banging noises from the sound effects in the film again and again.[28] During the editing process, Tsukamoto's short film The Adventure of Denchu Kozo won the Grand Prize award at the PIA Film Festival in Japan.[30][28] He stated getting the award felt like "walking out of the darkness into a bright light" and helped him get motivation to finish editing the film.[31][28]

For the film's score, Tsukamoto desired music that sounded like reoccurring metallic percussion sounds. Through an acquaintance, Tsukamoto found a tape by a group titled Zeitlich Vergelter led by the musician Chu Ishikawa. Ishikawa had never scored a film before but felt excited to work with Tsukamoto after meeting with him and being intrigued by his personality. Ishikawa made music for long pieces of music for the film.[32] Ishikawa was initially instructed to make music with only the sound of metal, which confused him, and then realized that he should follow his own instincts on the music instead of taking Tsukamoto's instructions literally.[33]

Tsukamoto finished editing the film in January 1989 with a new running time of 67 minutes. Among the shortened scenes were the sex scene between Taguchi and Fujiwara's characters and removed the scene in which the doctor is murdered by Yatsu's character and a chase scene with Kanaoka where a tap dance is performed.[33]


When asked about the film's meaning, Tsukamoto responded that he felt it was about "the process in which human beings become 'Iron'; that is, it's some kind of human condition," and that when he made the film, he was "preoccupied with chaos, so I was trying to integrate the horror with the science fiction that I had within me."[34] Tsukamoto expanded on this in an interview with The Japan Times in 1992, stating an interest in the erotic elements of juxtaposing a soft body against hard iron.[29]

Mes described the pivotal element that made the film popular outside Japan was cyberpunk. Cyberpunk had been derived from the 1983 short story by American writer Bruce Bethke. The term became known as a subgenre of science fiction in both literature and film that explored the relation of the human body in an ever-growing urban landscape dominated by technology.[35] Tsukamoto has given contradictory responses to his familiarity with the genre. In a 1993 interview in Cinefantastique, Tsukamoto stated he was impressed by David Cronenberg's film Videodrome and became aware of the burgeoning cyberpunk movement which led him to make Tetsuo: The Iron Man.[36] In other interviews, Mes expressed he was unfamiliar with the term when making the film, and that he had intended the film to showcase the eroticism of comparing metal with human flesh.[35] Tsukamoto felt that Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Cronenberg's Videodrome were "two parents of Tetsuo" but felt his work was different from cyberpunk works, as he felt that the genre dealt with the period after the destruction of modern cities.[37]

Mes expanded on the themes of the film, stating that Tsukamoto works from a Japanese context which involves the negative aspects of life in a metropolis like Tokyo. Tsukamoto saw city life, working office jobs, and spending hours commuting as "numbing the senses and robbing people of their humanity. In his films he wants to wake up his countrymen in the most extreme ways possible."[38]


When Tetsuo: The Iron Man was complete, Tsukamoto settled on Nakano Musashino Hall which could fit 80 people. The theatre was equipped with a projector that could handle 16mm film and had it set for late-night screenings in July.[33] Tsukamoto described the location as "the smallest theatre in Tokyo".[25] The film was distributed by Kaijyu Theatre in Japan on July 1, 1989.[2]

While developing a poster to promote the film, Tsukamoto approached film critic Yoichi Komatsuzawa for a promotional quote for the film. Komatsuzawa proposed to submit the film to the Fantafestival in Rome, of which Komatsuzawa was their Asian film correspondent. In June, the film won the Best Film award at the festival.[33] Japanese film critic Ken Okubo spoke of the impact of the film winning the award, saying "It was a great surprise, not just for me but for everybody in Tokyo. [...] Even before Tetsuo, older Japanese film directors would submit their films to foreign festivals, but there was no real excitement from the audience for those films."[39]

Following the award won at Fantafestival, the film was screened in Tokyo for three months at late shows which were around 9pm, which is the Japanese equivalent of a midnight screening.[25] According to Chikako Shimoaka of The Japan Times, Tetsuo: The Iron Man performed extremely well with over 10,000 copies on home video by 1992.[29] Mark Thompson commented on the films new reception in Japan, by saying like Akira Kurosawa or the band Shonen Knife "an artist without an appreciative domestic audience, somehow finds fans and praise abroad, and returns home a folk hero."[40] The film broke box office and records for non-mainstream cinema in Japan.[40]

The film was distributed in the United States by Original Cinema in early 1992 and in England in September 1991.[36][29][37] It was released on home video in 1993 by Fox Lorber in the United States.[41] DVDs was later released by Image Entertainment and Tartan Video under their Asia Extreme label.[42] Arrow Video released the Solid Metal Nightmares set, a collection of Shinya Tsukamoto's films on Blu-ray, including Tetsuo: The Iron Man,[43] on May 26, 2020.[44]


From contemporary reviews, critics commented on the film's originality and what Tony Rayns in Sight & Sound referred to as a "gleefully extremist" style.[1] Dan Persons writing in Cinefantastique echoed this, noting the film "catches a lost spirit of pure, kinetic filmmaking" while Richard Harrington of The Washington Post found the film to be "67 of the most relentlessly intense minutes in recent film history" and that "nightmarish hyper-reality about it".[45] Rayns and Kevin Thomas of Los Angeles Times compared the film to the works of Sam Raimi, David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Kenneth Anger, with Thomas adding that "Tsukamoto like any first-rate artist, is finally not like anybody else." and that the film "is not just another horrific exploitation picture."[1][46]

Discussing the plot, which Savlov found to be "less a coherent plot than a series of disturbing images loosely struck together" found the film worked on several levels, suggesting it could both be viewed as an AIDS analogy and a metaphor for the Japanese encroachment on the world market.[47] Rayns declared that the film only had "few token gestures towards storytelling." and that he only found traces of satirical elements within the aggressive imagery.[1] Stephen Holden of The New York Times generally felt that the film would only have a limited appeal to fans of more bizarre genre films.[48]

From retrospective reviews, Michael Brooke of Sight & Sound noted the film's low budget "works brilliantly: the stop-motion effects give the fusion of bared wires and exposed ganglia an unnervingly vivid physicality" and proclaimed that the film "remains one of the most pulverisingly effective sci-fi horror films of the past quarter of a century."[3] In the book The Definitive Guide to Horror Movies, James Marriott found that the film became wearying on repeated watches, and only Tsukamoto's Tokyo Fist came close to reaching Tetsuo: The Iron Man's visceral impact.[49] In 2009, the Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo placed Tetsuo: The Iron Man at number 97 on their list of top 200 Japanese films.[50]


Director Shinya Tsukamoto in 2009, the year Tetsuo: The Bullet Man premiered.

Jay McRoy, author of Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema declared Tetsuo: The Iron Man as being "one of the most influential Japanese horror films ever produced" which along with Sogo Ishii's Burst City (1982) and Toshiharu Ikeda's Evil Dead Trap (1988) "spurred the emergence of an increasingly visceral and graphically violent wave of Japanese horror films."[51]

Tsukamoto stated that the sequel, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) was made with more of a narrative to reach a wider audience.[29][52] Attempt to make a third Tetsuo film with American collaborators, including director Quentin Tarantino, was discussed in the early 1990s but was never made.[53] Tsukamoto stated he turned down the offers to make them in America as he was being told he would have to work with specific film stars and have short filming times to make the third film.[54] Following Tsukamoto's work on Vital (2004), he spoke about returning for a third Tetsuo film which became Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009). [55]

Taguchi was the only actor to continue working with Tsukamoto from Tetsuo: The Iron Man, with the actor stating he always kept some distance between himself and the director which has led them to continue to work together. Tensions between Fujiwara and Tsukamoto made this film their last project together.[28] Following work on the film, Fujiwara returned to stage work with Jūrō Kara and created her own stage company called Organ Vital in 1991. She made her own feature film titled Organ in 1996 based on one of her own plays that was also self-financed and shot on 16mm.[28]

In 1993, Tsukamoto lamented the budget constraints of the film, initially wanting to have a scene with a long take and a long shot of the Salaryman's home becoming metal.[25]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Rayns 1991, p. 52.
  2. ^ a b Mes 2005, p. 211.
  3. ^ a b Brooke 2012, p. 118.
  4. ^ Mes 2005, p. 16.
  5. ^ Mes 2005, p. 17.
  6. ^ Mes 2005, p. 18.
  7. ^ Mes 2005, p. 20-21.
  8. ^ Mes 2005, p. 21.
  9. ^ Mes 2005, p. 24-25.
  10. ^ Mes 2005, p. 25.
  11. ^ Mes 2005, p. 27.
  12. ^ Mes 2005, p. 29.
  13. ^ a b Mes 2005, p. 31.
  14. ^ Mes 2005, p. 32.
  15. ^ Mes 2005, p. 33.
  16. ^ Mes 2005, p. 34.
  17. ^ a b Mes 2005, p. 35.
  18. ^ Mes 2005, p. 36.
  19. ^ Mes 2005, p. 37.
  20. ^ Mes 2005, p. 39.
  21. ^ Mes 2005, p. 41.
  22. ^ a b Mes 2005, p. 49.
  23. ^ a b Mes 2005, p. 50.
  24. ^ Mes 2005, p. 51.
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h i Persons 1993, p. 52.
  26. ^ a b Mes 2005, p. 52.
  27. ^ Mes 2005, p. 53.
  28. ^ a b c d e f Mes 2005, p. 54.
  29. ^ a b c d e Shimoaka 1992, p. 177.
  30. ^ Mes 2005, p. 44-45.
  31. ^ Mes 2005, p. 46.
  32. ^ Mes 2005, p. 55.
  33. ^ a b c d Mes 2005, p. 57.
  34. ^ Alexander 2005, p. 18.
  35. ^ a b Mes 2005, p. 59.
  36. ^ a b Persons 1993, p. 51.
  37. ^ a b Mes 2005, p. 60.
  38. ^ Alexander 2005b, p. 19.
  39. ^ Mes 2005, p. 58.
  40. ^ a b Thompson 1992, p. 15.
  41. ^ Price 1993.
  42. ^ Mes 2005, p. 222.
  43. ^ Hendrix 2020.
  44. ^ "Release Date Updates". Facebook. Arrow Video. 11 March 2020. Archived from the original on 26 February 2022. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  45. ^ Harrington 1992.
  46. ^ Thomas 1992.
  47. ^ Savlov 1992.
  48. ^ Holden 1992.
  49. ^ Marriott & Newman 2018, p. 268-269.
  50. ^ 「オールタイム・ベスト 映画遺産200」全ランキング公開. Kinema Junpo (in Japanese). Archived from the original on 27 January 2011. Retrieved 22 July 2023.
  51. ^ McRoy 2008, p. 8.
  52. ^ Mes 2005, p. 212.
  53. ^ Mes 2005, p. 207.
  54. ^ Mes 2005, p. 91-92.
  55. ^ Felperin 2009.


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