EXTREME HORROR: The Films of Shin’ya Tsukamoto

EXTREME HORROR - The films of Shin'ya Tsukamoto EXTREME HORROR - The films of Shin'ya Tsukamoto

Since I didn’t really enjoy sitting through the movies featured in my latest EXTREME HORROR article, for this instalment in the EXTREME HORROR series I decided to cover some movies I’m really passionate about from a director who’s becoming one of my favourite filmmakers the more of his films I watch: Shin’ya Tsukamoto.

Shin'ya Tsukamoto - Third Window Films
Shin’ya Tsukamoto – Third Window Films

Most of you would recognise him as Ichi (the killer) from Takashi Miike’s masterpiece Ichi the Killer (2001): in fact, aside from writing and directing films, Shin’ya Tsukamoto acted in 51 movies, was the director of photography in 15 pictures, edits his own movies and even composed the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). However, Tsukamoto stands out in cinema history mostly for starting the live-action Japanese cyberpunk movement with Tetsuo in 1989. His filmography is comprised of 22 feature films – I’ve seen 15 of them so far – characterised by similar elements that make up his style: artful and dynamic presentation, disturbing and bleak content, industrial soundtrack, weird and sci-fi-esque imagery, tons of blood and gore.

The six movies by Tsukamoto featured in this article, and listed chronologically, loosely belong to the horror genre, as this filmmaker always combines different genres together. All of them are, however, quite extreme and disturbing, whether that depends on the violent content or on the deeply depressing psychological horror. Or on both these things together.

Continue reading and check these six extreme horror movies from Shin’ya Tsukamoto…

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Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Imagine David Cronenberg and David Lynch making a movie together, add a ton of Japanese weirdness and cap it off with an ear-bleeding industrial/punk soundtrack: then you have Tetsuo: The Iron Man, one of the most intense and unique films ever made. The story is very simple and almost irrelevant: a businessman accidentally kills The Metal Fetishist, who gets his revenge by slowly turning the man into a grotesque hybrid of flesh and rusty metal, known as The Iron Man. For some reason, The Metal Fetishist comes back to life and a fight ensues between him and The Iron Man: the result could be the total destruction of Tokyo and of the entire social structure of humanity.

Within a very short runtime (barely 67 minutes), Tetsuo: The Iron Man manages to provide an experience that feels very much like an audio-visual nightmare: people turning into objects, flesh becoming metal and mutilated limbs transforming into deadly weapons, this film is really one of a kind. One might think this movie only goes for weirdness and shock value (which are prevalent elements), but Tsukamoto actually deconstructed Japanese society and technology through Tetsuo, a movie that he described as a love-hate letter to Tokyo. Whether you like this film or not, it will definitely stay with you forever once you’ve seen it.

Tetsuo: Body Hammer (1992)

In a weird way, this sequel feels like a soft-reboot of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. The story is very similar to the one in the first movie: when a group of metal-worshipping fanatics abduct his son, a father unleashes his dormant destructive power, as his naked rage transforms the once-feeble flesh into a grisly symbiosis of metal and tissue. Using his body as a deadly weapon, the father goes around Tokyo slashing violent thugs and yakuza members.

Tetsuo: Body Hammer - Shin'ya Tsukamoto
Tetsuo: Body Hammer – Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Even though Tetsuo: Body Hammer is very much unconventional and bonkers, it feels way less experimental than its predecessor. Cinema connoisseurs and diehard fans of Japanese cyberpunk criticised the movie for that but, in my opinion, Body Hammer is much more entertaining and enjoyable than The Iron Man: this movie ups the gore and the action, it has better production values and more creative violence, it has an actual story that makes sense. Just like the previous film, with Body Hammer Tsukamoto tackles important subject matters: here, he criticises urbanisation by drawing parallels between his main character and the city of Tokyo. This is a phenomenal film that, due to its extreme content and out-there presentation, would definitely appeal to most extreme horror fans.

A Snake of June (2002)

After his most experimental period represented by the Tetsuo movies, Tsukamoto integrated his unique style with a more straightforward storytelling in A Snake of June. Here, a beautiful woman (played by the great Asuka Kurosawa) is being stalked by a stranger, who soon begins to blackmail her with copies of photos of her in an embarrassing position. Now, he controls the woman, who she must do anything he says…. Literally, anything. A Snake of June is a very mature and thought-out erotic-horror film, steeped in surrealism and amazing visuals.

Compared to the movies mentioned before in this article, as well as my favourite film of his (Tokyo Fist, genuinely a masterpiece!), A Snake of June feels more restrained, calmly-paced and mature. Don’t worry, though: there are still extreme scenes, such as the one where a man gets strangled with a metal penis or the infamous “vibrator” sequence. Despite its disturbing and controversial content, A Snake of June is also a very profound and deeply depressing picture about loneliness and the exploration of sexuality. Its ending is likely to repel many and make others very upset… I personally loved it and found it to be perfect for the tone and message of this film. A Snake of June isn’t just a unique extreme horror movie, it’s also one of my favourite films Tsukamoto has made and I would highly recommend to both fans of extreme horror and arthouse cinema lovers.

Nightmare Detective (2006)

In Tokyo, Detective Sekiya investigates on two suicides that occurred under mysterious circumstances, together with Detective Wakamiya and the rookie Detective Keiko Kirishima. When they discover that both victims had dialed “0” on their cellphones before their death and recorded a weird message. The detectives start believing that someone is inducing potential suicidal individuals to kill themselves: this kicks off a surreal hunt for the serial killer, which cause reality and nightmare to blend together into a surreal search.

Nightmare Detective - Shin'ya Tsukamoto
Nightmare Detective – Shin’ya Tsukamoto

While Nightmare Detective might look weird if you haven’t seen anything outside mainstream cinema, it really is one of the most accessible movies by Tsukamoto. Although this film features a couple of extreme sequences, some unsettling moments revolving around suicide and one or two instances of graphic violence, overall it feels more like a horror movie that aims to scare rather than disturb. As such, I can easily recommend Nightmare Detective to J-horror fans, whereas if you’re looking for the ultimate extreme horror movie, you might end up disappointed by this film. To me, it’s a good movie, but not nearly as memorable as most of the ones in Tsukamoto catalogue.

Nightmare Detective 2 (2008)

In this sequel, a man haunted by his unwanted abilities, which allow him to enter other people’s dreams, and memories of his mother dying when he was a child contemplates suicide while slowly drowning in his world of misery. Right before he takes his own life, Kyoichi’s doorbell rings: it’s a woman who claims that a murderous ghost in the dreams has already killed two of her friends. Kyoichi then decides to postpone his suicide and help the woman: a decision that will lead him in a surreal world of madness and nightmares.

Nightmare Detective 2 is, basically, just a “remake” of the first movie, with different characters, new kills and new scares. Even though this movie features a few effective extreme horror elements, it kind of feels pointless: it’s not a bad film by any means, it’s just an update version of a movie that came before, therefore not than interesting or original. If you watch and like Nightmare Detective you might want to check this sequel out too, though.

Kotoko (2011)

Aside from Tetsuo: The Iron Man (and, perhaps, Tokyo Fist) Kotoko is the most beloved and critically acclaimed movie by Shin’ya Tsukamoto, going as far as winning the Golden Lion at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. This disturbing and surreal horror-drama centres around a single mother (Kotoko, played by Japanese singer Cocco) suffering from a nervous breakdown, which causes her child to be taken away due to social services suspecting child abuse. Her mental suffering escalates from there, as she succumbs to her darkest fantasies.

Kotoko - Shin'ya Tsukamoto
Kotoko – Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Although Kotoko features a few loud and nauseating scenes (with industrial noises and extreme shaky-cam), this feels way less like a Tsukamoto film than the others mentioned in this article. Don’t get me wrong, in Kotoko you’ll still find plenty of gore, graphic and violent sequences and edgy moments, but most of the movie focuses on the mental breakdown of Kotoko, which we witness from her perspective: this can make the viewing a bit confusing and jarring at times, as Tsukamoto always refuses to clarify his movies to the audience (which I appreciate). Despite not loving this film personally, I do consider it one of the most interesting and deeply effective in Tsukamoto’s catalogue. It has, also, an ending that to me feels perfect and powerful.

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