Starring: Eric Bossick Akiko Mono Shinya Tsukamoto Stephen Sarrazin Yuko Nakamura
Running time: 79 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Why is it we feel compelled to kill our monsters? Well, kill may be too strong a word. As obedient, responsible, level-headed members of society we actually hold a morbid love for our monsters - those outsiders that will not or cannot adhere to rules, sense or even sanity. They do what we couldn't ever bring ourselves to do, things we never admit to ourselves we're capable of. Film history is full of monsters - Frankenstein, Dracula, Darth Vader, Leatherface, Hannibal Lecter - but one thing all of these characters have in common is how our love for them has seen them killed on screen. One thing we love to do is guess at what made people into monsters. Studio execs, screenwriters and directors are only happy to oblige this niggling question by dissecting our most beloved monsters in a seemingly endless stream of sequels, prequels, re-boots and remakes. No one seems to be able to adhere to the crucial piece of wisdom that what makes our monsters so compelling and terrifying is not what we know but what we don't know. The reason I bring this up is because one of contemporary Japanese cinema's most fascinating monsters has to be Tetsuo, a man violently morphing into a machine in Shinya Tsukamoto's seminal "Tetsuo" films. Now it looks as though this creation has also gone the way of cinema's greatest monsters and has been explained away in the third installment in Tsukamoto's "Tetsuo" series - "Tetsuo The Bullet Man".
Fans of the series will recognize the basic plot of "Bullet Man" from its predecessor "Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer". In that film Taniguchi, portrayed by Tomorowo Taguchi, is tortured and his son nearly kidnapped. The rage and fear that these events bring out in him cause him to transform into a merciless killing machine. This third film follows this basic almost identically. Anthony (Eric Bossick) is an American businessman living in Tokyo. One day after visiting his father, a bio-geneticist name Ride (Stephen Sarrazin) Anthony's son is killed in a hit and run accident. Anthony's wife Yuriko (Akiko Mono) is devastated by the death of her son and demands that Anthony find the person who murdered him and kill them. Anthony, seemingly in shock, simply does what his father taught him to do as a boy when he felt angry or upset - he recites the old nursery rhyme "Hush Little Baby" (Hush little baby, don't say a word/ Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird...) A strange reaction no doubt, but a coping mechanism that Ride feels is necessary for his son. When Anthony discovers the person who killed his boy - Shinya Tsukamoto as the infamous Metal Fetishist - his nursery rhyme mantra isn't enough to keep his rage in check and he finds himself transforming into a metallic monster possessed of incredible strength and murderous fury.
Sounds a lot like "Body Hammer", doesn't it? It's shortly after this that "Tetsuo The Bullet Man" follows up on another plot line from that film - that of the father who is involved with the creation of men/ machines - but takes it to whole new levels of complexity. Not to give too much away, Anthony's father was an American scientist involved in a post-war bio-genetics project codenamed Tetsuo in which human tissue was transformed into metal. Ride's wife Mitsue (Yuko Nakamura) was involved in the project as well, but after she died from cancer Ride's research took on much more disturbing developments, developments that would lead to his son Anthony. Tsukamoto reveals all this to us Ride's via journal entries narrated woodenly by longtime Tsukamoto friend and film writer Stephen Sarrazin. It's here that we encounter one of the many problems with "Bullet Man". Back in the late 80's Tsukamoto took friend Tomorowo Taguchi and cast him in the lead role of "Tetsuo The Iron Man". It was a risky move, but Taguchi already had a background as a performer in the world of small theatre and as the frontman for the punk band Bachikaburi. His physicality and frenzied abandon worked perfectly for "Iron Man". Flash forward two decades later and Tsukamoto not only cast his friend Sarrazin in "Bullet Man" but also cast photographer Eric Bossick as the film's lead. Both men do the best they can with what they are given to work with, an English-language script with some truly cringe-worthy dialogue and clumsy exposition. Still they try. Their Japanese co-stars don't fare nearly as well though. Akiko Mono and Yuko Nakamura are doubly damned by poor dialogue written in a language that they don't speak (at least not fluently). Their performances, filled with delivery that sounds like they're chewing a tough piece of meat, end up being the true undoing of "Bullet Man".
Now, many critics have taken a special pleasure in pointing out these shortcomings and dealing out an across the board trashing of "Tetsuo The Bullet Man" and I want to be one critic who says that this kind of treatment isn't entirely fair. Is this third installment of "Tetsuo" a good film? It is true that there is too much wrong with the film to call it a success, but barring the problems outlined above there are moments in "Tetsuo The Bullet Man" that harken back to what made the first two "Tetsuo" films so good. Visually Tsukamoto delivers his usual jarring, surreal imagery. The scenes of Anthony's transformation are totally on par with the two previous films, plus we are treated to yet another teeth gnashing, ear-splitting score by Chu Ishikawa. Tsukamoto himself does a decent job renewing the character of the mysterious "Metal Fetishist", and his teased kiss curl hairdo is a classic touch. Tsukamoto even treats us to a cameo by original "Tetsuo" actor Tomorowo Taguchi as a man obsessively brushing his teeth. But is this really enough to save the film?
In 2002 Shinya Tsukamoto was interviewed by Tom Mes for Midnight Eye. In that interview Tsukamoto spoke about his plans to expand on the Tetsuo mythos and ultimately make an American installment of his "Tetsuo" series, "I want to make 'Tetsuo' in America with a very detailed, American movie feel. I mean that if Tetsuo was a kind of distortion of horror films, then Tetsuo in America will be a distortion of 'Blade Runner' or the 'Alien' series." I think this ambition is the true failure of "Tetsuo The Bullet Man". Fans of Japanese films often come to the films of directors like Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike and Shinya Tsukamoto for the simple reason that they are tired of Hollywood films. American film is a more-real-than-real deciphered world where plots often more closely resemble puzzles in that by the conclusion of the film everything must be explained and must fit. Japanese film isn't like that and Tsukamoto's first Tetsuo film, 1989's "Tetsuo The Iron Man" is definitely not like that. "Iron Man" was a hellacious cyberpunk scream crossed with surreal pioneering of such experimental filmmakers as Maya Deren and early David Lynch. This was a film that didn't tell you a polite story, but blew up in youtr hand like a grenade... and adventurous films fans immediately fell in love. "Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer" may have been the first steps towards "Bullet Man", but there was so much in that film and in Tsukamoto's filmography that surprised audiences that it could be forgiven for the sometimes clumsy narrative at its heart. Sadly there is simply too much wrong with "Bullet Man" to call it anything but yet another example of a director giving us too much information about the monster, the mystery, that fascinated audiences. Tetsuo, the man/ metal monster may very well have been killed, but it Tsukamoto follows the route of his films "Snake of June", "Vital" and "Haze" he'll be back on track.