Ever since I was lent a VHS boxset by a friend when I was an impressionable teenager – this friend being my then my teacher, as if that could happen today (his words not mine) – of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, I’ve been a fan of Shinya Tsukamoto. It’s not lost on me how, knowing now full well the content, he lent me these films though I was not 18 years of age (shock horror!) and that many parents might see the content as too extreme but no, there you go Richard: enjoy, just remember to give them back. I took them home and let them wash over me.
Since then, getting hold of Tsukamoto's films has been an oft-frustrating process; Tartan, under their Asia Extreme banner, gave us several releases, many of which were then remastered (by Tsukamoto himself) and hummed into Blu-ray life by Third Window, who took up the Tsukamoto mantle.
Third Window also added to the catalogue of releases, though I’d still have to source some films from the US: Nightmare Detective, Gemini (Third Window have now released a blu-ray) and Tetsuo The Bullet Man.
Third Window have been flying the Tsukamoto flag and in this limited edition (1,000 copies - get yours today, roll up! Roll up!) you get his latest film since the stark and excoriating (in a good way) Fires on the Plain: Killing (2018), plus two older short films: Haze (2005) and The Adventures of Denchu-Kozo, or if you prefer it, The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy (1987).
I’d seen Haze back in an old DVD release that quickly drifted out of circulation and remember not realising it was a short film, so I had been a bit underwhelmed at the time. Even so, I looked forward to rediscovering it, ditto discovering Denchu-Kozo, as it was the short film that preceded Tsukamoto’s breakthrough of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. (PS for the record I am that outlier that prefers Body Hammer to Iron Man, sacrilege to some but what you gonna do?)
Verbose introduction aside, the boxset provides a fascinating glimpse how Tsukamoto’s work changes overtime, though at the same time highlighting similarities throughout. The films having a thirty year gap between them to show how Tsukamoto has adapted over time: from the low budget raucous energy of Denchu-Kozo to the more restrained visual stylings of Killing (though as Tsukamoto notes in the accompanying interview, Killing is still a low budget film by any modern standards, but not Denchu-Kozo standards).
In some ways the films in this boxset remind me of watching those of Pedro Almodovar, both come from anarchic, low budget ideas but then solidify over time and yet refuse to give up their more radical edge, it just transforms into something less noticeable (literary-wise Angela Carter comes to mind) – like Hitchcock taking perversity and sugaring the bitter pill so that you don’t realise or stop to think how unusual some things are.
Killing is Tsukamoto’s first samurai film. In many ways it’s a very straightforward film, focussing on a young samurai, Mokunoshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) and his relationship with the farmers that he helps to plant crops for, in order to pay for his room and board. Mokunoshi, especially, is interested in his relationship with Yu (Aoi Yu) and her younger brother, who Mokunoshi teaches the art of swordplay. Enter ronin, Sawamura (you guessed it, Tsukamoto himself) who recruits him for a job he has in Edo. Only there are samurai bandits outside the town, making the farmers nervous…
There are many reasons why Killing works. Firstly, it never ever outstays its welcome, being a pretty breezy 80 minutes, and when it finishes I thought: this would be a great moment for the film to finish. And it does. Where other films would go on unnecessarily, Killing bows out with grace having done all that it needs.
What hangs over Killing magnificently is a sense of ambiguity. Almost everything that happens seems almost preventable. Or is it? Tsukamoto seems to revel in playing with the genre and expectation: the unkempt, violent looking bandits may be what they seem: violent samurai waiting to prey on the town; they also may be Japanese Robin Hoods. They may be somewhere in between, and we see them from the perspective of various characters, who are in turn influenced by certain strong emotions that they are feeling at a given point in time. (Can you see I’m trying not to give spoilers away? Or too many of them.) As such certain actions, which in another film would be called out as explicitly heroic or as acts of rough justice, are never clear, heroes and villains are a hazy notion.
Equally certain acts in the film can be viewed as being heroic but also as blindly giving up your volition to follow rules handed down to you. I felt here that to an extent Tsukamoto was contemplating current society, not just historical circumstances – rules, social strictures are all well and good but need to be moderated by humanity, understanding and the capacity to look beyond stereotypes. When we first meet Sawamura he is fighting a duel and Tsukamoto films it so that often we can only see part of what is happening. Sawamura may be hidden behind a tree as Mokunoshi, Yu and her brother watch for the outcome. It’s like Tsukamoto is visually telling us you only ever see part of what’s going on, only ever know a small part of the story… or else I am seriously over-thinking things. That’s been known… (Confidentially, I think I’m right.)
So Killing is very much a chamber piece, focussing on character, which really allows Tsukamoto space to explore them in some depth. Though there are some very Tsukamoto-isms in there. Relationships tend to have an outwardly violent, sadomasochistic aspect to them. For no apparent reason Mokunoshi pushes Yu into a bush, Yu retaliates, giving him a solid punch to the stomach (hints of Kotoko and Tokyo Fist). Yet, always it’s with affection. So with all good character driven films we need good performances or so what? I’ve always felt Tsukamoto is underused and unappreciated as an actor. Certainly here he shines – and is looking pretty healthy for a man nearer 60 than 55 – providing quiet gravitas as the ronin on his way to Edo. (He’s also a far cry from his character in Denchu-Kozo.) Tsukamoto does not try to steal the screen and in turn he really grounds the film.
Our two younger leads (which Tsukamoto admits in an interview was surprised came on board, being such a low budget film and not knowing if they were aware of his work) acquit themselves well. Both provide performances that fit their quietly unique characters and seem comfortable in scenes that you don’t equate with Samurai movies in general. (I’ll leave you to watch and find out why.) If there is a criticism you would have to say that Yu’s younger brother, with his “I want to be a samurai and I’m ready to fight” character is a bit out of the cookie cutter mould but it’s about the only quibble I have.
Anyone acquainted with Tsukamoto’s work will recognise how essential Chu Ishikawa’s music is to his films. Ishikawa’s frequently pounding industrial scores permeate and resonate with Tsukamoto’s visual style. Sadly Ishikawa died prior to Killing’s release, though the music in the film is all Ishikawa’s, and frequently rather unusual for the genre. Watching the interview with Tsukamoto we discover that the music wasn’t written for the film but Tsukamoto was allowed by Ishikawa’s widow to listen to and select music for the film from Ishikawa’s private recordings, and you have to say Tsukamoto does his friend and collaborator proud in picking out music that beautifully complements the film.
Haze as a film is very different to Killing. Running at just over half of Killing’s 80 minutes (it fails to touch 50 minutes), it seems Haze was originally a 25 minute short and then added to, to make this 49 minute version. Haze is almost bafflingly simple and definitely not for your popcorn dropping, ten litres of cola slurping cinema goer (can you tell they drive me mad?) though you could argue it probably should be but it’s one of the most purely visceral films you’re likely to ever come across (OK, it doesn’t reach The Passion of Joan of Arc visceral but that’s a cinematic gut punch of a film for all its silence). The plot is simple: a man (Tsukamoto) wakes up confused and injured in a confined space; trapped, he crawls past snares to find a woman, as bereft of memory as him. Can they escape this insane, murderous crawlspace and piece together their past?
Haze is a film of camera, sound and acting. Full stop. It’s a full on sweaty, claustrophobic short; a nonstop cavalcade of agonising, nightmarish, physically sickening moments for the man – and later the woman. It’s a film with the logic and feeling of a genuine nightmare: no reason why they are where they are; the physical crawlspace is itself a character, and takes strange, slanting, impossible turns as it seems to push the man forever forward from sickening peril to even more sickening peril, the kind of which if you or I had to do it we’d turn to quivering jelly. At least I would.
That really is it, because it is all about visceral experience – the audience is sucked in to become part of the man and woman’s experience. If you don’t feel Tsukamoto’s (and I focus on him as he’s really the centre of the film) plight and sick in the stomach moment by moment then the film isn’t working for you. But the film has a sort of raw visual, aesthetic - and again sound – power that if open to it, you live through Tsukamoto’s nightmare just as he does. Both the moments of respite and the gut churning awfulness of suddenly finding yourself with no choice but move forward though what it might require of you, physically and mentally, is appalling – you’re with Tsukamoto every step of the way.
Importantly this could be some dreadful torture porn type film (I’ll try not to spoil what they have to endure) but it never even comes close. Instead even if Tsakamoto provides (literally) an agonisingly loud teeth-scraping constricted nightmare it never feels like he’s doing it to titillate but surface or externalise some internal horror. Maybe it works because beneath it all there’s a sense of Tsukamoto believing that human beings can face almost any horror and survive intact. It’s not in it for the pain.
Though anyone coming to Haze wanting a cupboard full of answers, you won’t get one– like Killing it doesn’t necessary give you answers. Even the ending, though suggestive is open to almost any interpretation that the viewer wants to give it. You cannot help but think it’s the right way to play the ending: if Tsukamoto had suddenly revealed “and it was all jealous cuckolded husband putting me through the wringer” the film would have become ludicrous. Instead the ambiguity makes sense in the context of film as nightmare, or as dream – there’s logic to it but it’s not always obvious and can segue or even throw in a non-sequitur or two.
Talking of non-sequiturs, in some ways Denchu-Kozo is the non-sequitur of the set. Apparently a film based on a play of the same title that Tsukamoto was producing, it’s unusual in that though his films are never humourless, it’s a much more overtly anarchic and downright slapstick in places. Running almost exactly the same length as Haze, Denchu-Kozo is a different kettle of fish. Clearly shot with a budget of a fiver found down the back of the sofa, it nevertheless is filled with invention, often of the artificial variety that at time might not be out of place if in black and white not colour in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or other German expressionist cinema. Learning of its theatrical origins this if anything makes more sense.
It seems likely that a kid with an electric rod growing out of his back will be bullied and such is the fate of Hikari. Luckily for him – or not – that he just seems to have a time machine and yes, it works. Throwing him into the future, where a gang of vampires, who are about to change the world forever, are after Dr Sariba, who just happens to be waiting for Hikari, who is destined to save the world from the vampires.
For a Tsukamoto film I’d argue it’s just about the most obviously plotted. Most of his films can be exited with a sense of not fully getting it but Denchu-Kozo is curiously – story-wise anyway – straightforward. By his own standards it’s perhaps the most anarchic and his most (intentionally) absurd. Denchu-Kozo opens with some quite broad comedy to the point that it’s a little unsettling, but it’s soon not so much replaced as supplemented with Tsukamoto’s trademark stop-motion style that he would further work through with the first two Tetsuo films.
The plot arguably starts to get a little nuts (not in a bad way) with vampires lusting after a woman they’ve locked up who is also the key to their global domination, and Hikari doing some quality though not always intentional foiling of them. The vampires are as much their own worst enemy as their actual enemy. In terms of energy and anarchy it is remarkably similar to Almodovar’s Pepi, Luci y Bom (both first films for two very unique directors). In both, the amount of manic energy they present and their tendancy toward the low brow is much more in evidence than the films they made later.
Denchu-Kozo is often intercut with images you imagine cut out of porn mags. If anything it’s effective, as is the theatrical over-acting – the roots of the film being theatre is incredibly apparent, from basic things like the sets (thus perhaps bringing to mind German Expressionist films of the late 1910s and early 1920s) but especially the performances: the vampires, including Tsukamoto and Tomoro Taguchi, who would memorably reappear in the first two Tetsuo films, are all full of wildly anarchic energy and chock full of expansive devilry – there’s none of the subtlety that Tsukamoto would begin to evoke even in the quieter scenes of Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer, let alone Killing. Yet again it fits the style and pace and chaos of the film.
Most importantly perhaps, considering it was originally a play, the film works as a short piece of cinema. There is nothing stodgy or stagey and Tsukamoto is clearly – one assumes thanks to his early experience making shorts - at home in the medium, to the point it would have been fascinating to see the theatrical performance and compare to the cinematic as I suspect the cinematic would be the better experience – as Tsukamoto really uses the camera in a way that it’s enormously intrusive, to the point that it’s Tsukamoto as director and editor you feel that really makes the film what it is. The performances are nutty and Tsukamoto is working as an artist, through camera, editing suite, sound and lighting. He makes an immediate impact and you can understand why Denchu-Kozo won awards. It’s a classic case of raw talent in need of a bit of spit and polish, something Testuo: The Iron Man would receive, even if you suspect the budget was not much bigger. It’s perhaps not a film you would re-watch compulsively (as I could Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo II: Body Hammer or A Snake of June) so in a way placing the film in this set is absolutely spot on. On its own it’d be a bit of a completist’s piece.
Otherwise, all films have an audio commentary by Tom Mes – which I am yet and may never (I’m not a huge audio-commentary fan) watch but considering Mes wrote a book about Tsukamoto I’d expect it not to be unenlightened. The interview with Tsukamoto though is surprisingly good. Most directors seem to struggle to describe their work (oddly, Walter Hill seems to be the least affected by this – random aside there) or else the interviewer interjects themselves too much upon the interviewee (I’m brought to mind an interview with Seijun Suzuki on Princess Raccoon where he’s reduced to yes and no answers), but Tsukamoto is given space to put across his ideas so is entirely worthy of your time, as are these three films.
While perhaps Haze and Denchu-Kozo are not quite Tsukamoto at his height, and though I prefer the second Tetsuo movie and will forever be enchanted with A Snake of June, Killing does represent an intriguing and very skilled directional shift for Tsukamoto. It’s not a film, admittedly, that is wildly off-piste for him yet he subverts the genre wonderfully if subtly. Visually, in Killing he is perhaps more restrained than in many of his prior films, but so what? It’s a joy to watch him continue to master his craft. There are few living directors I get excited to watch a new film by – whether a new release or an old film never before available in the UK – and Tsukamoto is one of those rare individuals that does make me want to pre-order, damn the cost, damn the possibility I might not like it and here, Killing, and Third Window’s excellent release in general, well, neither disappoints.