Iron Man

The lavishly illustrated Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto not only examines the maverick director’s films, but his formative years, fighting with his little brother (who he would eventually shove into a boxing ring in Tokyo Fist), watching anime and Gamera movies. A life of salaried drudgery beckons, until Tsukamoto strikes it lucky with an ultra-violent tale of metallic possession – Tetsuo.

In a sea of lacklustre, lazy books about Japanese cinema, compilations of press-notes and gee-whiz gross-outs, Tom Mes is a welcome beacon of sanity. He provocatively argues that Tsukamoto is one of Japan’s truly original film-makers, with movies like Bullet Ballet, Gemini and Snake of June transcending lesser directors’ shocks for shocks’ sake.

Mes’s last book, on Takashi Miike, was obliged to cover a pathologically prolific output. Tsukamoto has a smaller canon of just eight films, including the work-for-hire Hiruko the Goblin, about which not even the optimistic Mes can find much good to say. But exhaustive is as exhaustive does, and Mes dutifully files Tsukamoto’s entire oeuvre, from teenage shorts to acting cameos in others’ movies.

Mes reveals the careers of the films themselves, showing not merely how they were made but how they were sold. Tetsuo’s success in particular was a product of its time, accidentally hitting the tail end of cyberpunk and body-horror. Mes helpfully outlines both phenomena, as well as the biggest catalyst of all, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, with which Tetsuo shared a UK distributor.

Where most writers would simply reel off festival awards like merit badges, Mes gets into the nitty-gritty of who was on the juries. Consequently, we get to see Tsukamoto winning over The Piano’s Jane Campion with an impassioned defence of movie violence; if that’s not body-horror, I don’t know what is. Mes affords us a rare glimpse of the politics that go on behind the scenes, both in the heart-rendingly Faustian pacts made over funding, and the schmoozing that gets a movie in front of foreign buyers at festivals. A respectful, honest account that will make Tsukamoto the envy of every other Japanese director… except Takashi Miike who already has a Mes to his name, and Akira Kurosawa, who’s dead.

(This article originally appeared in Neo #9 2005)

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