When it was announced that Arrow Video was going to be releasing a box set of auteur director Shinya Tsukamoto films, it was incredibly hard to get the staff here at Blood Brothers to focus. Oddly enough, I was perhaps the one that was the least versed in the director and I was still ecstatic to leap into this set, titled Solid Metal Nightmares: The Films of Shinya Tsukamoto. The most daunting thing about the set was not burning our way through the ten films included with it, but trying to convey our thoughts on the immensity of this set. Thus, to cover all ten films and go over the actual release itself, we decided to divvy up the films. Ten films, three writers, one insane director. So, please, accept our apologies for the size of this article, but it was inevitable. This is a massive set to cover and we wanted to at least attempt to do it justice. Each film will feature its rating at the end of its section and then the box set rating will be at the very end.
TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)
A metal fetishist is cutting open his thigh and trying to jam a piece of rebar into it, he sees maggots in the wound, and in a panic runs into oncoming traffic, and gets hit. A salaryman is chased by a horrifying metallic abomination before himself beginning to become one. Nihilism and destruction, guilt and sexuality, metal and flesh… there are a lot of ideas masquerading as themes in underground Japanese cyberpunk classic Tetsuo, not that I’m calling that a bad thing, nor do is that meant as an insult, despite how it sounds. This film is often compared to the works of the great Davids, Lynch and Cronenberg, and in its way, this is extremely apt. Tetsuo is certainly a top-notch work of body horror work, and it’s also a surreal horror masterpiece, but where those descriptions fall short is in the decidedly punk sensibility as well. Tetsuo, like many surrealist works, is more concerned with evoking emotions than telling a story as such, and in this way, there are a fair few very effective techniques on display.
The salaryman (the Japanese equivalent of an “office drone”), ultimately, is infected by an extreme emotion that transforms him, in a Kafka-esque scenario, into the eponymous “Iron Man” and begins to clash with a mysteriously resurrected Metal Fetishist, in a battle reminiscent of something out of a stylish superhero comic, and ultimately must make the decision whether to fight for humanity, or turn the world to rust, as the Fetishist wants. This imported midnight classic was lauded when released and still deserves every laurel it’s earned. Even if you’re not the kind of person who’s not inclined towards this kind of cinema, anyone who appreciates foreign horror, surrealism, or simply films made out of pure chutzpah (the movie’s production was legendarily troubled, having stared with a full crew and ended with just the director and lead actor trading the camera back and forth to film the last needed shots) this movie is an absolute must see.
TETSUO II: THE BODY HAMMER (1992)
The last frame of the first Tetsuo film is a screen anyone who has played an arcade game is very familiar with it. “GAME OVER”. That movie’s relation to gaming is limited to a general attitude, maybe even an aesthetic sense, but that’s the extent of it. On top of everything else Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer is, not the least of which is a higher budgeted, and a more narratively driven exploration of similar themes to the original, but it also carries some of these arcade game tropes, largely the henchmen aesthetic and thin bizarre story justifying the action, while exploring a different emotion, this time rage instead of guilt. The plot of Body Hammer is basically that a salaryman ’s son is kidnapped by cyborg skinheads, and he is injected with something mysterious. After the same villains attack again, to even more devastating result, the salaryman, Taniguchi, is transformed by his rage into something else entirely, an abomination of metal and man. A lot of the look, much of the cast, and the kinetic, surreal, metal-punk feeling all come back, while the simple change of it being in color does alter the mood greatly.
This is a strictly thematic sequel, despite the return of the villainous Metal Fetishist, and in that way, is an excellent follow up to the original. It indulges the reasonably common Japanese sequel practice of taking the same characters and themes and remixing them into different scenarios, an interesting technique that allows you to revisit an idea from new angles, and in that way it remains focused on mood and emotion in opposition to anything else, making it a wonderful double feature with the original. Regardless, whether for these reasons or just to once again witness Tsukamoto’s sheer cinematic audacity, and bizarrely upbeat nihilism Tetsuo II should be on any surreal or body horror fan’s watch list.
THE ADVENTURE OF DENCHU-KOZO (1987) [SHORT FILM]
The last film on this first disc of the set belongs to the first of two short films, The Adventure of Dencho-Kozo. The reason for this one residing on this disc, along with the first two Tetsuo films, becomes very apparent once you watch it. It’s 45 minutes of Tsukamoto working out of the skills and tactics that he would later refine with his iconic cyberpunk franchise. From the stop motion and frame rate manipulation of the action sequences to the human meets metal monster, this film has most of the same style and elements. The film is insane, naturally, where a young boy with an electric rod growing out of his spine ends up fighting off cyberpunk vampires to save the future. The main issue is that, for all of its ambitions, the film is uneven and messy. The performances are all across the board and the narrative is muddled and often confusing. It’s a film that is meant to work out the kinks though, which it obviously does for his later work, and for fans, it’s a great glimpse into his earlier career.
TOKYO FIST (1995)
From its ultra-stylize opening where a group of boxers packed into a ring are all punching to synthetic and industrialized dance rhythms in the cold blue and grey world that Tsukamoto loves to use, it’s immediately obvious that Tokyo Fist is not going to be your usual sports film. The film injects a surrealistic and fantasy-esque tonality to its story of a salesman pushed to his limits by an ex-schoolmate turned professional boxer. The surrealism is caked into so many of the visual choices, the rawness of the camera or how the majority of the film is caked in saturated colors except for the brightly lit and colored boxing matches in the ring. Even the violence, as it is a boxing film, becomes increasingly grotesque and visually artistic in a horrifying way as the film progresses.
Like most of his earlier works, there is an ideology of discontent with life as usual particularly in how the lead character feels like his masculinity is challenged by this boxer and his life starts to crumble. Most sports films will feature similar plot beats, where the protagonist must overcome his fears and weakness to reclaim (or claim) their place through training and finding what means the most to them in life, but like most of Tsukamoto’s films – this one takes it to the next level. Through the competition between the schoolmates, the manner that the romantic relationship self-destructs, or how the two boxers push themselves too far, this film is an inverse of all the good feelings most sports films attempt to create. In a way, it’s almost the tonal and conceptional antithesis of the sports film, despite hitting all of the major components. Which is, naturally, why Tokyo Fist is an incredibly strange and effective watch.
Written By Matt Reifschneider
BULLET BALLET (1998)
Like the companion film on this second disc of the set, Bullet Ballet is a film that attempts to combine the anxieties of modern urban life with the often-grotesque spiral into carnal violence. The combination, while still intriguing, is not nearly as compelling in this more simplistic film. Although the film comes three years after the previous one, it almost feels like an attempt to hark back to Tsukamoto’s earlier work – glistening in its black and white cinematography and once again edging further back into a raw visual and tonal territory.
Visually, the director once again has a knack for slathering Bullet Ballet in unnerving moments of anxiety or confusion that linger and then punching through it with its bursts of gang violence, but it’s the narrative that feels thinner and intentionally vaguer. The performances match this visual intensity of the film, in particular, Kirina Mano shines as the punk girl that seemingly finds a parallel in our lead protagonist Goda, a man who becomes obsessed with obtaining a gun after his girlfriend commits suicide with one, but even when the film is truly moving in a cohesive direction it never finds that balance that Tokyo Fist did with its similar themes of violence, romance, and modernity.
Written By Matt Reifschneider
A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002) – 3.5/5
One of Tsukamoto’s most popular films, which is often regarded as one of his best within a breath or two by certain individuals – including some writers here at Blood Brothers, A Snake of June is a descent into voyeurism through the lens of an erotic thriller. Like most of the other films in this set, or any of his films really, there is a sense of extremity here that swiftly bounds into being an art film from the roots of what easily could have eroded into exploitation. While I don’t necessarily share the same love of this ‘blue and white’ color film as so many of his fans do, there is a sense that the director does deliver on his intentions here.
It’s through the execution of the film that A Snake of June succeeds. The blue hues of its color scheme, the intimate casting of three (one of which is the director himself,) and the slightly unhinged fantastical moments in the film lend themselves well to subtext, analysis, and layers of social commentary. For me, A Snake of June lacks the energetic outpour of his wilder films and the steady hand of some of his more dramatic films. The balance is there, certainly, but the juxtaposition of where the narrative and plot evolve by the third act feels slightly out of sync for me even if there is plenty to decipher. Granted, it’s one of his most popular films and one that his die-hard fans will immediately go to arms for, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.
Written By Matt Reifschneider
Prior to the Metal Nightmares box set from Arrow Video, Vital was a film that always sat in my peripheral vision as one that intrigued me but was never one to push me far enough into seeking it out. With the access of this set though, it was an easy sell and I leaped into the film eager to see what ruminations Tuskamoto would have on life, death, memory, and cadavers.
Turns out, he says strangely little here. Well, on the surface anyway. Vital is the kind of arthouse film that takes a lot of intriguing elements and buries every single one of them under the surface through subtlety and long takes of leaves on trees or someone staring into space. The pacing of Vital is glacial and, through some odd choices, it very much intends most of its cast to play things as disconnected and uninterested. Sure, perhaps it plays into the plot of a young man attempting to remember his love after a car accident takes his memory and her life, but the choices make for a film that regularly challenges its audience to remain awake more than dig into the deeper emotional statements it’s trying to convey. Some solid performances are undercut by this decision and its subdued dramatic tension makes it a film that feels like its protagonist – sitting silently in its own space and uninterested in maintaining a human connection with anyone. Arthouse fans will enjoy it, but for our readers here at Blood Brothers it might be a bit too safe and subtle.
Written By Matt Reifschneider
HAZE (2005) [SHORT FILM]
The second short film to be contained in this set is Haze, Tsukamoto’s full-on throwback to his early work where a man wakes up to find himself in a claustrophobic maze of concrete, sharp objects, disembodied limbs, and blood water. While a large chunk of his 2000s output was dedicated to more artistic and subtle work, Haze is a strange combination of that and the sheer intensity of his early material too. There’s very little “plot” and it’s all narrative, but the driving force is the innate fear to escape that is bred on the various horrors that this man, played by the director, must go through to find a way out. Considering the budget looks like it was $15 and a bottle of oxycontin, Haze is a powerful film that keeps its viewers on the edge of their seats and holding their breath. It’s grimy, gritty, suffocating, and occasionally wincing (teeth on a metal pipe, bro) but the atmosphere, performances, and vague plotting that only gets stranger as it goes makes Haze a fantastic addition. Don’t expect answers though, this one only has insane textures.
Written By Matt Reifschneider
After a stint of returning to his more traditionally provocative genre output that includes a couple of Nightmare Detective entries and a return to his classic Tetsuo franchise, it’s fascinating to see how Tsukamoto snaps back into a more artistic area with Kotoko. While the film is infinitely stronger than the last film in this set, Vital, it’s one of those slight genre-benders that may divide its audience into a ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ separation. The pacing is intentionally defined and slower so without a heart-ripping performance from J-pop sensation Cocco, who came up with the story too which was then written into screenplay form by Tsukamoto, it’s easy to see how this film might have fallen apart at the seams. It relies so much on her ability to translate the unreliable narrator that this one feels like a film where Tsukamoto intentionally subdues his style to lift her onto a pedestal – and it works.
As is though, Kotoko is an extremely poignant portrayal of the anxieties of motherhood, torn from a truly emotional place. The film does occasionally lean into genre territory as Tsukamoto and Cocco seem readily willing to layer in a sense of violence to underscore the anxieties of the character, and a sub-textual plot about doppelgangers definitely deserves some time to ponder. It’s an artistic character study, similar to the examinations of other human elements found his films, but Kotoko does it with such an assured hand, emotional core, and thoughtful commentary that it ends up being one of his very best.
Written By Matt Reifschneider
Killing is great. Director and star Tsukamoto is awesome as an old wandering ronin who has more to him than initially expected, but I wish not to spoil here, and the lead, who is a ronin posted up in a farm time makes for one of Tsukamoto's most fascinating subjects yet. He refuses to take a life, even in the most harrowing times and his inner workings makes for a fantastic arc that's pulled by a simple yet highly effective narrative thread. Also, the music by the late Chu Ishikawa is utterly brilliant in his last collaborative effort with Tsukamoto. I honestly thought when going in that Chu hadn't worked on the score for Killing before his untimely passing, but in fact he did the score on this and when I read his name in the credits, I felt myself overwrought with tears knowing this would, in fact, be my very last time hearing his masterful musical accompaniment to a Tsukamoto picture. He is a great loss to the film community and I am so grateful his work will live on through films such as this, amongst many other great musical offerings elsewhere.
I really liked Killing, and while I didn't touch on everything here in-depth, I am very satisfied with this latest film from my favorite master of the medium, Shinya Tsukamoto. It has a wonderful set of lead and side characters, a haunting and brilliant score, some practical and very effective gore effects, some of the best use of sound design in any Tsukamoto picture to date and once more, a completely fascinating leading character with his own set of psychological challenges creating an unusual yet familiar world set in the samurai genre that Tsukamoto so clearly adores.
Written By Josh Parmer
If you’ve read this far, you’re one fuckin’ champ considering it took three writers to cover the contents of this box set. As always, you will find the list of special features below, but rest assured it’s stacked. While many of the films in this set were released on Blu Ray in the UK previously (a few in the US too) it’s hard to not be enraptured by the sheer mass of this release. This original pressing has a hardcover book of new writing, analysis, and pictures of the films (which is worth it because the writing is phenomenal) and the sheer amount of material make it a must-have purchase – and that’s before we even get to the overall quality of the films. Needless to say, the score below is for the set in its entirety, but if you’re a fan – it only gets the highest of recommendations from us.
ARROW VIDEO FEATURES:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of all ten films
- Original lossless PCM 1.0 mono audio on Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer and Tokyo Fist
- Original lossless PCM 2.0 stereo audio on Bullet Ballet and Haze
- Original lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 on A Snake of June, Vital, Kotoko and Killing
- Optional lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 on Bullet Ballet
- Optional English subtitles for all films
- Audio commentaries by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes on all ten films, including brand new commentaries on Tetsuo, Tetsuo II, Tokyo Fist, A Snake of June, Kotoko, Killing, The Adventure of Denchu-kozo and Haze
- Brand new career-spanning interview with Shinya Tsukamoto
- An Assault on the Senses, a brand new visual essay on the films and style of Shinya Tsukamoto by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp
- Multiple archival interviews with Shinya Tsukamoto, covering every film in the collection
- Shooting A Snake of June, an archival behind-the-scenes featurette on the film s production
- Archival The Making of Vital featurette
- Archival behind-the-scenes featurette on Vital s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival
- Archival featurette on Vital s special effects
- The Making of Haze, an archival behind-the-scenes featurette on the film s production
- Kaori Fuji at the Locarno Film Festival, an archival featurette focusing on Haze s lead actress
- Archival Background to The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo featurette
- Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet and Vital music clips
- Multiple trailers and image galleries
- Limited edition packaging featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx, Gary Pullin, Ian MacEwan, Chris Malbon, Jacob Phillips, Tommy Pocket, Peter Strain and Tony Stella
- Double-sided fold-out poster
- Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Kat Ellinger, Jasper Sharp and Mark Schilling