Title: Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009)
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Watching Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988) is not like watching any other movie, it's an experience. It’s a film with very little dialog, and lots of style and visual flare. It’s a film that tells it’s story mostly through emotions and sounds, words aren’t all that necessary, the images and the sound do most of the talking. Tetsuo: The Iron Man tells the tale of a young man who starts turning into a machine after he has a car accident. His body slowly but surely starts to grow joints and cables and exhaust valves and…drills! In many ways, the film plays out like David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), because it’s the story of a man turning into something monstrous, and the psychological torture that results from this change. Tetsuo: The Iron Man has elements of body horror that many of David Cronenberg’s films have. These are the kind of horror films where a person realizes there is something terribly wrong with their body and suddenly they face the notion that their body has turned into their worst enemy. It also has something of David Lynch's Eraserhead in it when it comes to placing its main character in the middle of a decaying, ugly city landscape. Watching Tetsuo: The Iron Man is an experience because the film is shot in Tsukamoto’s signature kinetic style, where the camera moves and jumps and shakes constantly in a frenetic manner. One thing you should know about Tsukamoto films: if you don’t like “shaky cam” then you should stay clear of this one, but if on the other hand you find that you can stomach it, you’re in for a wild ride!
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is one of three Tetsuo films. The first one was followed by a sequel called Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), a film I’ve yet to watch. He followed that one with the film I will be reviewing today Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009), the third part of this cyberpunk trilogy. On The Bullet Man we meet Anthony, an American living in Japan . Anthony's married a Japanese woman and has started a family with her, together they had a kid whom they named Tom. One day, as Anthony is walking through the city with little Tom, a mysterious black car drives by them and purposely runs over Tom! Just before the accident is over, Anthony realizes that his sons death screams aren’t exactly human, and his blood is black! Almost instantly, his son’s death triggers a transformation in Anthony’s body, and in a matter of seconds Anthony’s body becomes a living weapon! Bullets shoot out of his body, guns come out of his chest and Anthony proceeds to blow away the car that killed his son! But the question remains, who killed his son? And why? Who was the guy driving the car? And why is Anthony's body going through this transformation?
So I was not fully prepared for just how cool this movie was going to be. At all! It’s been a while since I’ve seen the original Tetsuo: The Iron Man and normally directors try to do something completely different with each film, special artful directors like Tsukamoto. And in many ways, this is a very different film than Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and in many ways it isnt. In many The Bullet Man ended up being extremely similar to previous Tetsuo movies, which is kind of interesting. All three films are connected thematically and in structure. Tetsuo: The Bullet Man might even feel like a remake of sorts. For example, this is also a story about a working class hero, who lives in the big bad city. It’s also a story about a man who undergoes a physical transformation from a human being into a mechanical monster. The main character is confused as to what is happening to him... and the similarities don’t stop there. So it appears that the Tetsuo movies share that same basic structure, but a few things set them apart. For example, while the original film was a surreal, nightmarish journey where events aren’t really explained and things are left for you to interpret, this third entry goes a totally different route. Tetsuo: The Bullet Man attempts to explain everything with crystal clear clarity, and I have to admit, I enjoyed this take on Tetsuo as well. This one is like a balancing act between an abstract artsy fartsy film and a by the numbers film that wants to tell its story in a rather straight forward fashion. How straight forward is this film in comparison to the original? Well, on this one Anthony actually discovers why he is turning into a walking machine gun when he stumbles upon his fathers private laboratory where he kept all his journals, this scene was reminiscent of a Frankenstein film.
And yeah, this film functions very much like a Frankenstein movie. Anthony turns into a monster that nobody accepts or understands and all everyone wants to do is kill him. He is a creation set loose upon the world, and the world does not want to accept him. Because of this, Anthongy has uncontrollable rage and anger at the ones who did this to him. It is this anger which triggers the transformation, the angrier Anthony gets, the more out of control he gets. In one amazing sequence, Anthony (now transformed into The Bullet Man) goes on a rampage/killing spree against a group of armed men who try to wipe him out by shooting at him. What they don’t know is that bullets make Anthony more powerful! He absorbs them into his body! I have to admit, this was the coolest aspect of the film, Anthony turning into a living weapon, with guns bursting out of his chest and hands; an awesome visual. This whole sequence left me speechless! I was utterly hypnotized by this film and how it was unfolding, I kept wishing that this film would keep being just as cool all the way till the end, and it did. Not for a second did the film turn boring, it kept me glued to the screen the entire time. The most interesting aspect of the film is the main character, The Bullet Man. The idea is plainfully speaking: kick ass. This idea of turning a man into a weapon was also used in a low budget sci-fi film called Meatball Machine (2005), a film I will be reviewing very soon, keep an eye open for that one.
Speaking of visuals, this film was shot in color which goes in contrast to Tetsuo: The Iron Man which was shot in black and white. But things aren’t all that different visually, Tsukamoto doesn’t give into color entirely, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is a film that is drained of its colors, almost to the point where it becomes a black and white film. This is a very dark film where blacks and whites dominate the color palate, yet every now and again, a hint of color appears. The editing is swift, sometimes lightning quick. Sometimes Tsukamoto will just play with the visuals, turning the film into a kaleidoscope of visuals. The camera is constantly shaking; some scenes feel as if you were in the middle of an earthquake…other times it feels as if some impatient, nervous voyeur was seeing everything, looking left and right. I think this erratic camera work fits perfectly with the kind of story they were telling, about a guy going through all these unwanted physical changes, the desperation of the character comes through in the camera work. The overall look and feel of the film is very modern; this film looks slick, stylish. And keeping in line with the films stylish nature, the soundtrack is made up of industrial music, lots of beats and electronic sounds, I personally loved it. It fit perfectly with the film. The closing credits song entitled “Theme Song for Tetsuo: The Bullet Man” was produced by Nine Inch Nails, sadly that’s as far as Nine Inch Nails got involved with the music, it would have been cool had they scored the entire film, but sadly, it didn’t happen. The sound effects are awesome as well! When Anthony transforms into The Bullet Man, and he talks, wow, it’s the coolest voice! So robotic, so otherworldly, actually, it was kind of frightening.
But was this film the classic case of ‘style over substance’? Are we left with a film that’s all visuals with no meat to it? While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that The Bullet Man is a deep film, I can’t say the film is void of themes either. At its core, this is a straight forward revenge film with Anthony attempting to avenge the murder of his son. His wife won’t let him be and ultimately begs him to kill the guy who murdered their son, which he does go out to do. At the same time, same as in Frankenstein (1931) and Blade Runner (1982), Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is a film that has a creation returning to it’s creator to ask him why he is the way he is. If you had a terminal decease and had a chance to have a conversation with God, wouldn’t you ask him why he’s allowed such a decease to exist? Certain scenes in Tetsuo: The Bullet Man reminded me of that scene in Blade Runner where the Replicants face their creator and question him as to why they die so fast. At the same time the film talks about controlling ones anger and not allowing it to get out of control. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Incredible Hulk, anger is what ignites Anthony’s monstrous side and he must learn to keep it in check. But also, the main villain in the film, a character simply named 'The Guy' wants to show the world how ugly and violent the world really is, he wants to set Anthony loose in the world, so they get a taste of how awful it can be. So yeah, the film does have its themes. Speaking of 'The Guy' I thought it was so interesting that Tsukamoto plays a character in the film. And its a character thats constantly pushing the main characters buttons, pushing him to become more monstrous, more violent. I thought it was so symbolic of how a director of a film makes his characters go through certain situations, by orchestrating the film.
Many think that this film can only be enjoyed by fans of Shinya Tsukamoto’s films but I say no to that notion because this film is actually more straight forward than Tetsuo: The Iron Man. On this film, things are given an explanation, an origin. In fact, I think Tsukamoto was aiming for a wider audience with this film. The fact that he shot the whole film in English let’s us know this. And this is the part where I speak about the films negative points. My biggest gripe with this one is that by trying to make a film that would be more accessible to American audiences, Tsukamoto sacrificed something in the creative process. The main actor is an American, the Japanese actors all speak in English, or at least try to. Sadly, most of the time their English is hard to make out. I personally like Japanese films to be spoken in Japanese, because performances and feelings come through much better in their native language. In other words: this is the kind of film that’s good to watch with the subtitles on even though most of it is spoken in english. Some characters are dubbed, and their lip movement suddenly doesnt match with what they are saying, which was a total let down for me. Another thing that lets us know he was aiming for a broader audience is the complete elimination of sexual themes, so The Bullet Man is a 'softer', more accessible kind of Tsukamoto film. But rest assured, this film still has its freaky side. And anyways, even though the attempt was there, the movie still didnt end up being mainstream and thank the movie gods for that because who wants to see a mainstream film from Tsukamoto, raise your hands? Didnt think so.
Tsukamoto plays a mysterious character called 'The Guy'
So that’s my take on Tetsuo: The Bullet Man a visually interesting film done with very little money, yet same as Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the results work because of the filmmakers behind the camera. In many ways, it feels like a reworking or a remake of the ideas presented on the first film, only with a bit more money. Even though it doesn’t reach the greatness of the original, mainly because it’s very similar in structure, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is still an incredibly watchable film. It might be a simple revenge tale, but its visually arresting, kinetic, never boring, fast paced, dark and violent, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is a film you gotta experience! Highly recommend it!
Rating: 4 out of 5