When it comes to films that one would never expect to be paired up, The Abyss and Tetsuo: The Iron Man make for a surprisingly appropriate match for Dim the House Lights’ 1989 competition. Where James Cameron’s nearly 70-million-dollar, two-hour-fifty-plus-minute sci-fi drama and Shinya Tsukamoto’s low-budget, just-over-an-hour-long black-and-white cult film may not seem to have much in common at first glance, the two are easy to dissect as companion works. Both of these films aren’t quite as accessible as some might wish: the former with its length and pacing, the latter with its grotesque and triggering nature. And yet, one reigns well above the other in this bracket. That film, coming to a climax with a massive phallus, composed of solely pieces of scrap metal meshed together on two bodies, is Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
Why Tetsuo? Well, it involves a discussion of The Abyss first and foremost. Looking at James Cameron’s career as a whole, anyone can see his two greatest loves, barring the Titanic, include the ocean and all its beauty, as well as science-fiction, a genre he’s well-versed in. The two come together often enough – and no, that doesn’t include Aliens of the Deep, contrary to what the title implies – but not ever quite to the extent as in this ’89 flick. To simply sum up The Abyss, the whole thing involves a civilian diving team sent down to search for a nuclear submarine, while dealing with the forces of nature, the nasty side of humanity through navy SEALS, and surprise, an aquatic alien species.
First and foremost, The Abyss is a human drama, pitting a bunch of desperate folks of opposing opinions against each other to sometimes great and sometimes embarrassing effect. Not a minute of it is anything other than heavy-handed – its final scenes proving to be the biggest offender – and its sentimental nature goes hand in hand with that of Spielberg, though it’s easy to argue that Cameron doesn’t quite know how to reel this film in when compared to the other filmmaker. In fact, for a film that involves the discovery of “non-terrestrial intelligence,” the aliens could be considered the least interesting, or well-developed, part of this bloated feature. A three-hour movie should be paired up with a compelling narrative to fill in the gaps between interesting set pieces, be they interactions between NTIs and humans or simply confrontations between humans. In fact, one of its most memorable bits outside of anything related to the NTIs is an action scene where Ed Harris’ protagonist and Michael Biehn’s villain-of-sorts have a stand-off with a broken light-fixture swinging dangerously between them as water and metal fixtures surround them entirely.
That kind of scene directly ties into the way Cameron sidesteps creating a genuinely great story for the sake of focusing on all the technical goodies that come within. As wild and ambitious as his narratives can get, sometimes to a fault, it’s often more pleasurable than not to witness the technical work that Cameron focuses on, with details to set design and the general production always being top-notch and well worth the big budgets. Much like in Aliens, he makes the most out of each and every claustrophobic scenario; scenes where individuals are trapped in their suits in the depths of the ocean make for admittedly terrifying experiences. More than anything though, these scenes succeed because of the sound design at work. Eerie score, the sound of air bubbles being released, uncomfortable, awkwardly paced breathing, and more come together for the sake of enhancing the feeling of being trapped in what basically amounts to a big soon-to-be-airless metal box under endless amounts of water.
And The Abyss would be nothing without its special effects for its alien species, which in 2015 look painfully dated when compared to the practical effects that something like Cameron’s Aliens featured. The fluid effects that are used to make the water move through the ship like an endlessly shifting wave with purpose resemble that of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but in that film, it all interacts smoothly with the real world it’s surrounded by. By contrast, Tetsuo: The Iron Man doesn’t need any fancy special effects. Better yet, it barely wastes a minute of its short length, immediately thrusting the viewer into the grime, the gore, and the good-old-fashioned melding of human flesh and scrap metal.
The low-budget Japanese flick, shot on 16mm, makes every black-and-white frame count. Describing Shinya Tsukamoto’s film simply is tough. In fact, limiting it to “a ‘metal fetishist’ run over by a Japanese businessman takes vengeance by forcing the businessman’s body to metamorphose into walking, talking scrap metal” might be for the best. But that doesn’t make it a work of art that’s hard to follow, regardless of all the gnarled and surreal imagery presented within. One could practically ditch all of the dialogue that’s actually included in Tetsuo and it’d still make perfect sense (or as perfect sense as a work like this could make). Almost everything is conveyed visually, and without having seen any of Tsukamoto’s other films, it’d be fair to claim that the man is a master at this based on this feature alone.
Tetsuo‘s tone shifts wildly, which matches up beautifully with the way its filmmaking shifts just as much. Dozens of pieces prior to this one have inevitably made comparisons between this film to both of the beloved Davids of horror filmmaking: Cronenberg and Lynch. The former comes to this discussion primarily through his body horror and bleak sense of humor – notably Videodrome in all its grotesque goodness – though Crash would make a fascinating companion piece with its fetishistic focus. With Lynch, it’s more akin to Eraserhead in terms of low-budget surrealism, but with an entirely different vibe. Lynch’s hypnotic elements are ignored for the sake of making something that rarely lingers on a frame.
Tsukamoto best achieves the kinetic nature of his film through scenes done through stop-motion animation that feature quick progression through the streets of Japan and bodies being morphed with metal and other objects in high-speed, among others. It’s a jarring stylistic touch that works to great effect to make every unnatural happening seem like a sure-fire part of the universe being offered to the viewer. But it’s not just in visuals that his style jumps off the screen. His attention to sound and music cues differs vastly from Cameron’s with The Abyss, but there’s no denying it’s just as important here as it is in the other. The music and sound effects don’t always mesh with what’s on screen, and that’s presumably how it was intended to exist: just out-of-whack enough to create an even stranger, more off-putting, experience that goes hand in hand with the material.
To think that the same kind of horrifying consumption and expansion of the human body to a gross effect that Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated film Akira featured just a year prior could be depicted in a live-action film is one of the most fascinating things about Tetsuo: The Iron Man. The difference here is that in place of the flesh primarily being utilized for body horror, Tsukamoto’s interest is purely what he can get away with creating with pieces of scrap metal. It’s unfathomable how much metallic material – though heaven knows how much of it was plastic blended in with metal for the sake of practical effects and safety – was utilized and recycled for the sake of making some of the set pieces and costumes within the film.
And not a single piece of it goes to waste, with Tsukamoto often showing off everything he and his crew created for the sake of Tetsuo. Which, in grand part, is why Tetsuo: The Iron Man is the true winner here. With heaven knows what small percentage of the amount of money that James Cameron had to make the The Abyss, a film whose concept deserved a tighter film than it got, Shinya Tsukamoto created an engrossing work of art that delivers laughs and cringes alike. Plus, it’s abundant in phallic symbolism and nothing says “winner” like body horror and dicks.
The winner: Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Both movies are in print and available online.
The Abyss; written and directed by James Cameron; starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn; 172 minutes.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man; written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto; starring Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, and Shinya Tsukamoto; 67 minutes.
The previous matches in the Tournament of Films can all be found here.