Monday 9 April 2018

The Question in Bodies #8: Industrial Penetration

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989); Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)

(The usual warning: if discussion of extreme sexualised violence and mutilation is likely to disturb you, don't read any further, and don't ever watch Tetsuo.)

Some years ago now, I sat in my friend Jon’s home in East Ham, the now-legendary habitation on Clements Road, where I was staying for a weekend, and we had, as we sometimes do, a film marathon. And that night, we watched Eraserhead and Salò, back to back. The moments when, while watching Pasolini’s brutal anti-adaptation of 120 Days of Sodom, we began to dry-heave in a sort of grotesque balletic unison are engraved on my memory. At the end we agreed that we'd seen a great piece of art, and that neither of us ever, ever wanted to watch it again.

Then we watched Robocop, as a palate cleanser.

It was a great night.

I was reminded of that night while watching Shinya Tsukamoto’s two original Tetsuo movies, Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989) and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992). Without the part about watching Robocop afterwards, obviously, although watching Robocop after a really difficult movie is a tactic I will always recommend. Like Salò, I found the Tetsuo films – there's a third instalment, Tetsuo: the Bullet Man (2009), but with the best will in the world, I'm stopping here – an endurance test, pieces of cinematic art that I appreciated but which I really didn’t want to see again. I had seen the original Tetsuo a long time ago, as a teenager, when it had been broadcast on Channel 4, who loved broadcasting things no one else wanted to let people see back then. And I recall it having had an effect, and there were scenes that I remembered – one in particular – pretty perfectly from then.
Even this makes me sort of cringe.
I don’t know, maybe I was more resilient at 18, or maybe I didn’t yet have the life experience of pain or have sufficient empathy to understand what the images meant. Either way, this time round, through both films, I was pressing pause at regular intervals just to take a breath, and to check how much longer I had to go (the moment where I was watching Body Hammer and feeling like I must have managed at least half an hour and found I’d only made it through 16 minutes was not quite a glimpse of existential despair, but it was close).

It’s interesting how an extreme movie affects you. Different people respond to films like this in different ways. I usually find body horror of this kind something I can cope with, in a way that I’m not so prone to with zombie movies or slasher movies. The queering of bodies is a thing I'm pretty comfortable with, usually, but in Tetsuo and Tetsuo II, I found myself wincing. They made me recoil in a way that Cronenberg’s stuff for instance does not.

I will try to summarise the plots of the Tetsuo movies, but I’m not sure that would do much of a service to them. Plot doesn't really seem to be a point.
Vengeful cyberzombie at 11 o'clock.
Still. In Tetsuo, a man with a yen to slice open his flesh and insert bits of metal (director Tsukamoto) is the victim first of a really gross infection and then of a hit and run accident perpetrated by a nameless, bespectacled salaryman (Tamoro Taguchi). The salaryman begins to find his body invaded and pursued by industrial machinery. A spike of metal grows from his face. A pulsing lump of biomechanical matter – a lump of throbbing gristle, in fact, and does that make this the Second Annual Report? – possesses an innocent woman on a railway platform (Nobu Kanaoka) and she becomes a vengeful, jerky, oil-vomiting cyberzombie. The man escapes her, but his mutations accelerate. The transformation begins to spread across his entire body. It consumes him, remaking him into an oily, steaming beast of wires and scrap. Even his masculinity becomes possessed by the metal plague, his penis becoming a roaring stonecutting drill, a foot and a half long, and in the most distressing scene of the film, the part where, if I wasn’t intending to write about this, I’d be completely done, he uses it on his partner (Kei Fujiwara, also director of photography), with predictably gory results. The metal fetishist, also transformed by now into an industrial-level cyborg, finds the salaryman, is somehow intuitively drawn to him. They fight, and then the battle becomes a dance of penetration, brutal gay sex with drillbit dildoes and numerous sites of entry. What emerges from the mess of wires and cables that results is a two-headed beast that decides to infest the whole world.
The cyborg: And we can rust the whole world and turn it into the scrap of the universe.
Pictured: Scrap of the universe.
Tetsuo II: Body Hammer has Taguchi and Tsukamoto returning as antagonists; it’s not quite a remake, not quite a retread, not quite a sequel, more a reset. Taguchi is now Tomoo, a bespectacled, mild man, married with a small son. Tsukamoto is a similar character to before, just a “guy” (yatsu), right down to the singlet with the big black X on it that he wears in both films, although this time he’s assisted by a mad scientist (Toraemon Utazara) and a horde of brutal skinheads. They pursue and torment Tomoo, kidnapping his son, and driving him, apparently without any rhyme or reason, to transform into another oil-dripping industrial beast, this time with guns sprouting from his arm and chest like cysts. In his fury, he ends up blowing his little boy to bits, and, captured by the “guy” and his gang, becomes the subject of some experiment that hastens his transformation. His wife Kana (Nobu Kanaoka again) exists as a cipher, kidnapped, terrified, brutalised, and eventually consigned to the periphery when she ceases to be viable as a plot device.

The gang of skinheads want to be cyborgs too, everyone grows guns from their bodies, and mayhem results, which ends in the protagonist/beast absorbing his antagonists and setting out once again to wipe out the world. A confusing postscript shows Tomoo and his family walking around in the aftermath of an apocalypse, and remarking on how peaceful it is.

Both films look like anime, and as the characters become more monstrous, animated elements, with makeup (the accentuated veins on mutant foreheads tend more to the look of anime than anything), and the movements of the characters themselves becoming as we go on like something from a particularly extreme animated series. In the second film particularly, there's a lot of screaming. I lost count of the number of times the principals go “AAAAAARGH!” for no particular reason.
In both films, Tsukamoto and Taguchi torture each other, engage in sickening acts of violence that segue into penetrative intercourse and become part of a multiheaded, gay mutant cyborg harbinger of the apocalypse, and both times it's an apocalypse of human identity, the loss of humanity to the machine. The machine is cruel, a grinding engine whose first casualty is human empathy; in both films Taguchi’s characters murder their loved ones, the perverse result of a capitalist society.

Modernism is horror in Tsukamoto’s films, screaming horror that subsumes human feeling, thought, sexuality and self, and it's industrial society itself that inspires these monstrous transmutations, the landscape of the city eating our souls and turning us into the creatures of the machines, not creators.

But the Tetsuo films stubbornly refuse to supply moral context. They show these developments to us, and the pain and rage, and the mutilated flesh, torsos growing guns like malignant cysts, feet becoming jet engines spewing fumes and sparks. But every time it's almost as if the films are saying, look at this horrible thing, now let's look at that again, closer. The sexuality of these films – homoerotic, polymorphously perverse – made of a bunch of things I usually dig on, nonetheless repels me here. Tenderness is an illusion in this world. Female bodies are used, abused and discarded, and the only equal terms of relationship are between men, and are violent in character, a mutual murder-rape of the self resulting post-orgasm in a snarling, sputtering stack of melded flesh and scrap metal. The sequel doubles down on this, hard (in every possible sense): male bodies are fetishised in Body Hammer in ways that suggest an aggressively queer circuit boy fascism, and at the climax (pun intended) the skinhead body fascists, their very brains penetrated without consent, brainraped, become part of the industrial gestalt, welcomed into it.
Pictured: mass brainrape.
And because the films’ queerness is married to their cyborg horrors, either we have to read them as homophobic (inasmuch as, if cyborg mutation results in queerness, queerness needs horror to exist) or they're films that approve of hypermasculine queerness as a byproduct of a loveless industrial transformation of men into machinery, where women and children are discarded or ground up as so much meat.  Here, queerness is still made toxic.  For Tetsuo, Iron Man and Body Hammer alike, lethal conflict is all, brutal sexualised violence the only site of pleasure and pain, and only the apocalyptic wasteland provides any chance at peace.

For some reason I found myself thinking of Salò and the Marquis de Sade again as I watched Tetsuo, and not just because of a physical reaction to Salò I once shared with a friend. Pasolini was hostile to his source material. There was an intent to it, a sense that Pasolini was sharing his outrage: this is fascism, he said, this is evil, and you will watch this and you will fucking understand. But Tetsuo has less in common with Pasolini's revolted, sickened response to the Marquis de Sade, and more in common with Sade himself. Tsukamoto's cyborgs are industrialised Sadeian libertines, with the same end goals, the same amoral core, and as I struggled through, the films reminded me of Angela Carter’s summing up of the Marquis’s work:
The annihilation of the self and the resurrection of the body, to die in pain and to painfully return from death, is the sacred drama of the Sadeian orgasm. In this drama, flesh is used instrumentally, to provoke these spasmodic visitations of dreadful pleasure. In this flesh, nothing human remains; it aspires to the condition of the sacramental meal. It is never the instrument of love.
Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman (1979), p150
You could say the same of the Tetsuo films. And it is striking how love is a factor in so few of the films I've surveyed in this project to explore identity horror, and how often the horror of plastic identity exactly coincides with the eradication of love.

Where is our affection? Where is human warmth in this?

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