Shinya Tsukamoto  

A fascinating, intense auteur that tends to explore repressions, obsessions, and their violent or neurotic release in surreal, sometimes hyperkinetic movies with a style all his own. He consistently digs into recesses of the mind and the subconscious, visualizing their physical or fleshy repercussions (which is why he is sometimes compared to Cronenberg). His earlier movies are often extremely violent in an anarchical way, and one feels the obsessive creepiness is very personal. He delves into surreal and fantastical territories with ease, blending it into reality when needed by the psyche of his characters. One of the most original and fascinating film-makers in Japan and a master at crafting sound, vision, costumes, cinematography and acting to precisely shape his visions.


A stand-out entry in Tsukamoto's repertoire that may take a while to grow on you. Its approach is surprisingly art-house for Tsukamoto, although the viscerally assertive and present cinematography and soundtrack reveal the movie's maker. Story-wise, it may be described as a Japanese Redemption by way of a visually rich and abstract Peter Greenaway. This beautifully filmed eye-candy explores the themes of doppelgängers, nature versus nurture, and, as usual for Tsukamoto, the dirty beast inside of man. A high-class doctor becomes engaged to a woman with a mysterious past. A strange presence comes up from the slums he despises to haunt him and brutally takes over his life. Animalistic behaviour transforms into detached but a cold personality, and vice versa, until we can barely tell them apart. The main actor delivers a very studied but striking and over-the-top collection of theatrical performances, and the actress is charmingly sensual in an other-worldly way. These unforgettable performances, together with the sets, make-up and searingly colorful and bizarre slum costumes ensure that the movie will imprint itself in your mind regardless of what you think of it. Definitely a one-of-a-kind, visual and tactile movie that you will find yourself going back to re-watch.

Fires on the Plain  
A remake of a 1959 Japanese WWII war classic about Japanese soldiers in the Philippines reduced to minimal survival, bestial behaviour, cannibalism and a hell on earth. I found the original to be somewhat heavy-handed in its relentless and somewhat artificial portrayal of war and survival hell. Tsukamoto's remake is much more over-the-top than the original obviously, and should therefore be even more flawed, and yet I found this remake much much more compelling, simply because it is visceral in ways only Tsukamoto can create. If you want to experience, feel and understand how a man can be reduced to madness and cannibalism, then this is the movie for you. It is that dark. Tsukamoto wisely doesn't bother with his usual surreal touches, since he doesn't need them when it comes to war. War is brutal, visceral, insane and surreal enough all on its own. It does make use of over-the-top splatter in one massacre scene however. But it's the portrayal of increasing madness that is the strength of this movie, with a protagonist who, as opposed to his peers, stubbornly and valiantly tries to resist his own deterioration for as long as possible. But even the strongest must collapse under such conditions. Practically all war movies since WWII have been lazily praised as yet another anti-war movie, but it's dead easy to make an anti-war movie. This one goes for something else: To recreate the most nightmarish and real human experience as a visceral film that involves its audience by way of a human protagonist in hell. There are no exciting action sequences, no honor and glory, just the barely visible last dregs of humanity and exhausted insanity. The two most powerful scenes are an accidental murder due to madness and exhaustion, and the end-sequence: A disturbing simple portrayal of a very broken man.

Nightmare Detective 2  
Tsukamoto's best in years, and a greatly superior sequel that can be watched as a stand-alone movie. Although, at the surface, this is a riff on the Nightmare on Elm Street type of horror where dreams prove fatal to teenagers and it even has some J-Horror long-haired ghosts, Tsukamoto makes this an intense study in primal fears as only he can do. Fears from childhood, traumas, social fears, nightmares, ghosts, and death are explored, as experienced in the recesses of the mind, with reality meshing with nightmares in dream-logic and creepy strangeness. Even the classic waking-up-to-find-you-are-still-dreaming is given a new workout here with unique and creepy ideas, and Tsukamoto's inimitable style and dynamic cinematography. Although he kept one of the pop-idol actors that ruined the first movie, he manages to get a pretty good performance out of him. This delivers one great scene after another with a superbly gentle and appropriate ending. Highly recommended.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man  
A truly bizarre Japanese dark surreal piece of work with lots of stop-motion animation. A man with a fetish for metal shoves metal objects into his body but panics when maggots invade his flesh and gets run over, and this triggers a surreal, gory, twisted nightmare of a hyperkinetic journey where you can't tell apart the dream from reality. His accidental nemesis starts experiencing metal-related changes in his own body, and when the fetish-man comes to visit and extract revenge, things accelerate into a brutal and chaotic battle of supernatural powers and forced metamorphosis. A surreal, industrial, energetic nightmare of men turned into angry mutating machines under the pressures of urban life. This comes off like a blend of Cronenberg and Lynch on speed.

Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer  
This sequel is basically a revisitation of very similar themes only in a slightly more accessible, commercial way. It's another nightmarish, surreal vision of the ubiquitousness of industrialization and the overwhelming machines that transform man to the point where a father turns his children into physical human weapons and machines of destruction. This sequel actually features a plot you can follow and it's in color, but it's still darkly bizarre and intensely fascinating.

Of Some Interest

Adventure of Denchu Kozo, The (AKA The Great Analog World)  
Early insane film on 8mm about a boy with an electric rod/pole permanently attached to his back who invents a time machine and goes into the future where punk vampires rule a chaotic world by exploding atomic bombs to darken the skies. To stop development of the super-bomb attached to a mutant girl, electric-rod boy teams up with a female who has a book on her head and fights the vampires in rapid-cut stop motion animation while flying on metal scraps in order to bring light back into the world. Did you get all that? Oh, nevermind.

Reminiscent, in some ways, of Tsukamoto's early Tetsuo days (also thanks to the soundtrack), this is 50 minutes of intense claustrophobia and very dark surreal nightmare that possibly explores the subconscious. A man wakes up in an extremely narrow concrete catacomb, some places so tight as to demand some literally teeth-grating maneuvers. He ponders as to why he was put there and finds some booby traps a la Cube, then befriends another survivor amidst a bloodbath of gore. The ending is maddeningly impenetrable, but, if I understood it correctly, it conflicts with previous dialogue, and a more pure surreal experience would have been being preferable over the all-too-rational discussions of their situation in the catacomb. Another flaw is that for a lot of the first half, it is difficult or impossible to make out what we are looking at. An unforgettable, intriguing and imprinting nightmarish experience, but it feels undeveloped, like a single idea or nightmare made into a movie that hits you but doesn't quite cohere.

Hiruko the Goblin  
Mixing horror, comedy, fantasy and gore (but mastering none), Tsukamoto displays a relatively light-hearted side of his movie-making talent. Archaeologists study the existence of goblins and discover a secret tunnel under the local school, releasing the monsters into the world. Tsukamoto, of course, has to give the monsters an over-the-top treatment, so they scuttle about as large spiders or invisible speed demons, controlling the minds of their victims with long snake-like tongues to decapitate themselves. The heads are then attached to their spider bodies. Will the crazy scientist and school students manage to keep this epidemic under control? And what is the meaning of the mutations appearing on the boy's back?

Tsukamoto has explored the effect of prevalent violence contrasted with a repressed masculine psyche before, especially in Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet. I see this as a third entry on the theme, only this time it takes place in the Edo period in the form of a samurai flick, Tsukamoto style. If Tokyo Fist concentrated on hyperkinetic violence as a visceral release, and the superb Bullet Ballet focused on a man haunted and weighed down by violence not of his making, this movie posits questions on the applicability and usefulness of violence and explores what happens to a pacifist male who lives in a world dominated by violence. Tsukamoto does not use this to preach against violence, as this is not his style, and an audience that extracts this from the movie would be mistaken. He explores the masculine character and its primal need or attraction to violence, and delivers it in a typically intense style. But whereas Bullet Ballet ended on a redemptive note, this one is pessimistic and dark. The story involves a seasoned ronin who is very good and brutally effective with his sword, another very skilled ronin who is hiding a pacifist nature, and a young and very green teenager who thinks fighting and killing are cool. But then, midway through the movie, violence used as defense suddenly warps into violence for its own sake, the pacifism becomes incompetent weakness, and his ideals warp into cowardice to the point that his useless swordplay literally and surrealistically turns into masturbation, and the woman in this film dreads death but instigates violence often to the point that her interaction with men is depicted as surreal games of lust mixed with sadism. There are a couple of scenes of splatter, and the crumbs of surrealism look like mere odd behaviour to the untrained eye, but, overall, this is a much more subdued movie for Tsukamoto. I still much prefer Bullet Ballet, and the ending in this one is too gloomy and simple for me, but this is still another interesting and intense one from Tsukamoto.

An intimate look at inside the mind of an insane single mother who is very dangerous to her child. Think Repulsion, Tsukamoto style, which means the intensity is turned up to 11, and then to 13. She hallucinates evil doppelgängers, works herself into a frenzy over every little worry and paranoid fear to the point of driving herself to actually do what she fears, she cuts herself constantly to prove to herself that her body wants to live, she violently attacks men with a fork when they hit on her, and every chore becomes a nightmare. Her sister takes over care-giving of the child, and then a strange stalker (Tsukamoto) appears who seems to be in love with her to the point that he lets her beat him into a pulp as a necessary part of their relationship. You will be kept guessing for at least half of the movie as to what is actually real. Cocco, a Japanese pop/folk celebrity, gives her debut performance and it is a scary, natural one. But her raw, a capella singing performances in the movie go on for way too long to the detriment of the pacing. Another flaw is the fact that there is no development in character and story, just the horrifying experience of being her, with her loose grip on reality.

Nightmare Detective  
Tsukamoto does J-Horror with a big dose of Suicide Club and Elm Street. People are committing violent, bloody suicide in their sleep after talking to a strange man on a cellphone. Police are on the trail, and a suicidal guy with the ability to enter people's dreams is drafted to help stop the brutal deaths. Starts with grippingly mysterious supernatural horrors, then becomes a disappointingly conventional horror movie, and only picks up at the end when they have a frantic war of memories and dreams mixed with gore as only Tsukamoto can do. Another variation on Tsukamoto's usual themes, this one focusing on repressed memories and the nightmares that ensue. The biggest flaw is probably the miscasting of apathetic pop-idol as pedantic detective, and dull, depressed emo-boy as the psychic. Tsukamoto himself is intense as always though.

Snake of June, A  
Another exploration of repression by Tsukamoto, this one relatively more subdued, mature and psychological. The movie revolves around a dysfunctional couple: A young, gentle, sexually frustrated wife and her older balding cleanliness-obsessed husband who can't communicate nor have sex with her. A mysterious outsider first blackmails, then simply helps the wife to explore her own secret fantasies and parade in public in a tiny mini-skirt, no underwear and a remote control dildo, until she sheds her inhibitions in a scary way. Then he 'frees' her husband using more violent methods. The last half features surreal sequences where voyeurs watch a love-making couple drown through funnel like masks, the persuader turns out to be something stranger than human and the three of them all reach orgiastic epiphanies. Filmed in gorgeous black and blue and features endless torrents of pent-up, late-spring rain. The masterful direction finds a perfect balance between disturbing and cleansing, although the movie feels voyeuristic.

Tetsuo: The Bullet Man  
Tsukamoto revisits his most successful movie in a second sequel. This goes beyond even Body Hammer though with its narrative plot, and it seems almost Hollywoodized in the way it feels the need to explain everything with a scientific back-story. Once again, an ordinary salary-man is triggered into a fit of rage after some senseless violence is committed against his child. His body starts mutating into bizarre metallic weapons and he searches for answers, constantly provoked and stalked by a frighteningly eccentric stranger (Tsukamoto, acting as another intense, near-supernatural provocateur). All this is accompanied by a pounding, blasting soundtrack with the help of Nine Inch Nails. The biggest flaw here is the use of English dialogue performed by flat foreign actors and distracting, awkward intonations by the Japanese actors. The camera work is too shaky and frantic this time, the plot explains too much, and the climax makes no sense, leading to a very bizarre thing for Tsukamoto: A happy ending. Watch the first two instead.

Tokyo Fist  
A prototypical Fight Club only with over-the-top energy and splatter, and fewer philosophical musings. It's all about the repression of wild passions and hidden rot in Tokyo, the businessmen and wives who live and work robotically with constant tension, and what happens when everything comes out in a violent rush. A meek man gives in to bestial violence, competing with his brutish boxing friend, while his wife explores her body with piercings and domination. The unrealistic, over-the-top behaviour and excess gore, however, detract from the plot and ideas, and leave you only with a hyperkinetic, violent but stylish film. It's an assault on the senses for an overall effect that portrays an irrational and violent release from stifling civilization, rather than being a movie about realistic plot or characters. I prefer his more subdued and fascinating (and highly recommended) Bullet Ballet which explored similar themes of the effects of violence with more control, much more interesting introspection, and a breathless epiphany and liberating ending.

A subtle, personal meditation on death, lifeless life, the soul and its possible relation to the body and its internal organs. A man wakes in a hospital with amnesia, goes to study medicine and encounters the body of his ex-girlfriend in dissection class. As he dissects her body and his own memories, experiences that seem more like an alternative life take over his mind, his lifeless relationship with a fellow female student interweaving with memories(?) of the dead girl, both needing masochistic games to feel alive, but the love and memories of happiness grow inside his own head the more he dissects her. Despite this description, the movie is visually tame but psychologically tense. However, it just doesn't gel together for me, feeling more like an unfocused and inscrutable personal meditation in progress. I found the character of Hiroshi, his broken mind, and his highly unusual relationship with dissection class fascinating, but the masochistic girlfriend was unnecessary despite fitting in with the movie's theme via desperate lifelessness, and the parallel, identically neurotic new girl didn't make any sense at all. However, if you like metaphysical movies that find transcendent love within a broken mind, such as 'Eternal Sunshine...' and 'Possible Worlds', definitely check this one out.

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