Eastern Premise #34 – Tetsuo : The Bullet Man
This week Jason Julier takes a look at the belated third entry in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo series.
For the third entry in his on-going cyberpunk series, Shinya Tsukamoto ups the ante and the rigorous assault on our senses. Never one to follow the status quo, Tsukamoto rips up the rule book and forces fans of the series to think again. Eastern Premise has already, albeit far too briefly, covered the original Tetsuo film, which remains a personal favourite. So much so I may return in greater detail to the definitive ‘first cut’ edition when I have little else to offer. Yet such an occasion feels an eternity away even if I only consider the body of work from this original, daring and invigorating director.
Arriving eighteen years after Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, it’s clear that Tsukamoto’s talent continues to develop and overcome many obstacles to deliver this third entry. The biggest change is the realisation that although set in Japan, The Bullet Man is filmed in English. Originally conceived in the nineties as Tetsuo America, the Western aspect was a subversive force that the director could not shake off despite the failure of the initial project. The other noticeable inclusion is the use of digital technology with the camera now able to add another dimension to the infectious energy of the series. It is quite literally thrown around during moments of transformation or confrontation in an attempt to harness the power of the afflicted. These ‘shaky cam’ moments will prove too much for some, rendering the film almost unwatchable while others will remain transfixed on this powerful vision.
More than any previous Tetsuo experience, the viewer is invited into the confines of this claustrophobic Tokyo, existing between apartments or underneath the floorboards. Yes, the setting has similarities with Tsukamoto’s glorious A Snake of June; a city clinically stark, devoid of life and ultimately happiness, except the rain has been replaced with a sun drenched feel that adds to the dreamlike quality of events.
We join a small family unit with Anthony head of the household and under work related pressures we can all sympathise with. Despite such demands he loves his family deeply and regularly visits his nearby father, complying with his wishes for various medical tests. This arrangement includes Anthony’s son and he puts this unhealthy fascination down to his father’s scientific background and losing his mother to cancer. This love for his family and the frightful grief when faced with tremendous loss are two major themes of Bullet Man.
Tsukamoto is not merely content to direct and often appears in his own films. In the Tetsuo series he takes the role of the mysterious Man, and does so again here. When Anthony’s son is murdered by this mysterious individual, his world is turned upside down. His wife can only focus on vengeance and demands that her husband seeks out the murderer and kills him. For Anthony, a normally placid individual, such an idea is alien and repulsive. Yet as his anger grows, he begins to physically change as the demon within is awoken. His unique DNA sparks a Proteus Syndrome metamorphosis, slowly at first with subtle changes, before his body becomes almost unrecognisable.
The uphill struggle to finance and deliver this third instalment is well publicised. Clearly even at the lower end of the budget scale, technology and techniques have allowed an almost clean cut version of the Tetsuo body horror. Gone is the gritty, DIY, twisted cyberpunk disfigurement and instead we have a new vision. Anthony’s form becomes encased in the deepest black marble textured material than engulfs human shell. The end result is a more stylish, almost Mecha-like transformation, tipping the balance more towards robot than android. This conscious decision from Tsukamoto fits into the particular origins of the secretive Project Tetsuo, which is at the heart of the plot of The Bullet Man.
Another tangible benefit is this blackened presence becomes visually stunning when pitched against Tsukamoto’s limited choice of palate for The Bullet Man. Even on DVD the end result is stylish and wonderfully crisp thanks to a marvellous print. This new body form also offers new opportunities with Anthony’s wife coming to terms with the horrific transformation, before lovingly picking away at the exoskeleton to see what remains beneath. What little remains of her husband is blackened but his soul remains unaffected, as does their love. For Anthony this new power is a curse, one that could destroy not only those close to him but the whole of Tokyo.
Widely criticised upon its release, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is a different beast from its forbearers; being seen as an attempt to reach out to a broader audience. This remains a difficult viewing experience despite the use of English and deeper plot. Perhaps ‘deeper’ is the wrong word to insert, as Tsukamoto loves to keep his films streamlined and short. The Bullet Man is no different, offering a rapid sub-eighty minutes full-on assault. Other directors may have built upon the family dynamic or the origins of Project Tetsuo, but not this director. The soundtrack is a tenacious creation in itself, outstripping onscreen events and pulverising your sonic senses into submission. This is evolution and it’s something we cannot predict or control in today’s age. We must merely try and hang on, keeping our senses and principles intact.
While the previous instalments in this series reached the UK, this third offering has not made it across the Atlantic. For those willing to import, an American DVD is available along with a Japanese limited slipcase edition, complete with foil casing. The rare advantage this time around for importers is that being shot in primarily in English, language is not a problem although this doesn’t apply to the extras on the Japanese edition. Surprisingly the Blu-ray version is region free so you can enjoy the high definition experience on your UK blu ray player. The cost of importing a Japanese release is not cheap but it is well worth the effort as apart from a trailer the blu ray also includes ‘The Bullet Man, Multi Material Version’. This feature length extra takes the audio from the film and provides a wealth of visual content including artwork and behind the scenes footage to match audio accompaniment. I’m pleased to confirm that the Japanese Blu-ray release is a stunning assault on the senses.