Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, is a cult classic film in the West. Blending genres, employing elements of cyberpunk, body horror, and experimental film, it stands out as a thoroughly unique film. Although it is more obscure today, it played a major part in reviving the Japanese film industry by pioneering a new approach to cinema.¹
The film entails fantastical, grotesque transformations wreaking havoc on a regular man’s life. One day, he wakes up with metal growing out of his cheek. From there, the growth only spreads, eventually turning him into a literal iron man. As the transformations accelerate, he progressively loses his humanity as he becomes something beyond mere flesh.
Tetsuo was a passion project of Tsukamoto’s. Shooting with 16mm film in black and white, he intentionally crafted a grainy and rough effect.² Tsukamoto funded the production with money scrounged from his day job.³ The film was produced with a skeleton crew, with actors playing a direct part in production. Kei Fujiwara, who plays the female lead, played a particularly large part in the creative process.⁴ Fujiwara lent her hand to concepts, cinematography, and costume design. Her apartment served as the setting for a large part of the runtime.⁵ Ultimately, Fujiwara and the rest of the cast and crew, save for the male lead Tomorowo Taguchi, left, frustrated by the difficult working conditions and Tsukamoto’s strong personality.⁶ Filming had to be completed by Tsukamoto and Taguchi alone. They took on tasks such as lighting at the same time that they played lead roles in the film.⁷
The soundtrack was supplied by the late industrial musician Chu Ishikawa.⁸ Although he is now known for being a staple in Shinya Tsukamoto- or Takashi Miike-directed films, he was then a member of an obscure industrial noise outfit called Zeitlich Vergelter. Tsukamoto approached him to produce music for the film, asking for something which sounded as metallic as possible. Ishikawa certainly succeeded in that prospect, producing a soundtrack which sounds like a musical factory. His soundtrack is key to the atmosphere of Tetsuo, enveloping the viewer in the industrial, urban, oppressive essence of the film.
Although the production process was troubled by such significant tribulations and by a nearly non-existent budget, Tsukamoto managed to make a major break. Tetsuo was nominated as the best film of Italian film festival FantaFestival.⁹ Although Tsukamoto was then unaware of the concept of cyberpunk, his film fit snugly into the tastes of audiences at home and abroad who were enthusiasts of it. Tsukamoto was heavily influenced by such mainstays as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).¹⁰ Like Cronenberg, he sought to explore the transformation of the body and the relation of pain and eroticism. And following from Scott, he sought to explore themes of the city and its relation to humanity, though he set his film in the present rather than in the futuristic world of Blade Runner.
Although Tsukamoto employs the cyborg motif common to cyberpunk, he puts a distinct twist on it. Although other cyberpunk media does not shy away from shoddy fusions of flesh and metal, there are few which approach it in the way that he does. Tsukamoto’s fusion of flesh and metal is extremely rough and horrific. It is not high-tech by any means, but a harsh and agonizing mutation of a human into a metal monstrosity. This fusion is central to his vision, and is the nexus of the themes he explores through the film.
For Tsukamoto, the fusion was meant to be passionate. In his own words, the foundational motif “came in part from the wish to express eroticism. I found it very difficult to do that in a direct way and I felt I needed a metaphor to express that aspect, which became the invasion and erosion of the body by metal. I tried to make an erotic film by way of science fiction, to express eroticism through iron.”¹¹ Through this eroticism, he explores related themes such as pleasure and pain, self-mutilation and self-destruction, and masochism and sadism.
I wish to argue that the metal in the metal-flesh relationship is essentially representative of capital. Although Tsukamoto does not identify it as such, he directly associates it with the oppressiveness of modern urban life and the supplanting of organic, personal life with the impersonal and synthetic. The capitalist mode of production is the engine of both of this phenomena. The concentration of large labor-forces in urban areas is a product of capital’s development of cooperative, large-scale production and its displacement of rural communities. The domination of real, concrete people and communities by abstract, impersonal concerns is the domination of society by capital. It is the placing of profits over people.
Tsukamoto’s early films all revolve around the modern capitalist city and the denigration of organic life in it. The reason that he does not identify the city as a capitalist city, and ‘metallization’ as capitalist ‘metallization’ is because, like most people today, he does not recognize the socially and historically specific nature of modern bourgeois society.
That is, he is subject to commodity fetishism. Rather than recognizing the specific social relations which drive urbanization and the loss of community, he attributes these qualities to the object of metal itself. The relations which give metal the quality of a commodity, a commodity which extends to much of modern life, are not noticed. Thus, in Tsukamoto’s worldview, metal becomes a cloak donned by capital, expanding and eating up organic life just the same.
The flesh, which is the receptacle of labor-capacity, the form which human life takes, is consumed by a concrete form of the abstract force of capital. Tsukamoto essentially explores the organization of society around bourgeois life-for-labor, which continuously fights to bury the pre-capitalist communal maxim of labor-for-life. Understanding this is key to recognizing the significance of his work’s themes for life in capitalist society.
Tetsuo opens in a slum interspersed with scrap metal, the camera tailing a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) in a working uniform. The sounds of industrial production clang in the distance. Arriving at his apartment, we see that the man’s room is filled with hoarded scrap metal and cut-outs of basketball players. These cut-outs indicate a fixation on physicality, athletic self-transformation. Taken with their nest of scrap metal, they foreshadow things to come.
The man sits down, dropping a metal rod, and undresses. Suddenly, the man, known as the Metal Fetishist, slices open his calf and inserts the rod into it. After a cut to black, we see him unwrapping a bandage on his leg. The wound is wide open and filled with maggots.
The Metal Fetishist (MF) screams and begins running in a manic, incoherent state. A car hits him and presumably kills him, with sleazy jazz music playing all the while. We are then shown a metallic sign reading “New World.”
Various machines in factories are shown in montage. The song “Tetsuo Dance” begins, acting as a soundtrack to the Salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) convulsing in a frantic, yet stiff, manner. The style of movement conveys an almost robotic characteristic, embodying both the spontaneous and the structured.
The vision ends abruptly, bringing us to the Salaryman cutting himself while shaving. Instead of a normal cut, however, he finds a small piece of metal growing from his cheek. He tries to remove it, but it does not budge, spraying blood everywhere instead.
We cut to the Salaryman (SM) on the phone with his Girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). We see a vision of SM and his Girlfriend (GF) having sex from a disturbingly voyeuristic view. Then, it is revealed that SM was the driver who hit MF. The voyeuristic perspective was that of MF. GF expresses having uneasy feelings ever since they hit and killed MF.
SM heads off to work, waiting for a train at a station. The woman seated next to him notices a strange, organic-looking bundle of metal and inspects it. We are shown MF somehow controlling the bundle indirectly from somewhere else, now confined inside of a metal cocoon. The woman touches the bundle and is infected, her hand turning into metal. SM hears her scratching violently at her transformed arm, looking over and realizing what has happened.
SM, a sweaty and clumsy mess, runs from her and a chase ensues. This scene is where we see the most of the city. The urban environment itself becomes the form of SM’s terror, having nowhere to stay and hide and instead only places to pass through.
The woman finally corners him in a bathroom stall, where he stabs her in the neck to no avail. She beats him into submission, then grips him tightly by the throat and lifts him effortlessly. She then forces her metal hand into his mouth.
SM is propelled back to his apartment garage, where he crumples in a heap. Scrambling to his legs, he panics to close door, but the woman suddenly arrives and forces it open. She speaks mockingly with MF’s voice as SM attacks her. SM breaks the woman’s back, forcing out a final scream in the woman’s true voice as MF laughs maniacally.
SM is drowning in agony after fight, likely owing to the transformations his body is going through. Dragging himself to his room, he lifts his sleeve to find huge, pulsing metal growths on his forearm and on his ankle. The growth on his ankle, which we realize is a thruster, propels him uncontrollably throughout the city. He is tormented by the vision of GF and him having sex over the dying form of MF. Then, he is thrown into a dream of GF as a metallic monster adorned a tube-like phallic appendage. He is on his hands and knees, naked and powerless. The monster rapes him, causing him severe pain.
He wakes up from this nightmare gasping for air. He is laying with GF, once again a normal human, in their apartment. He goes to the sink to splash water on his face, and hopefully to clear his mind. He finds that the metal in his cheek has grown. In a repulsive scene, he painfully tears the skin off to find an extensive metal network within his cheek. From bed, GF asks if he is okay. He lies to her, saying that everything is fine while gazing at his mortified flesh.
We then cut to him and GF having passionate sex. He is clumsy throughout, although this is partially due to his injured hand and face. The sex is cut short by SM seeing a flash of MF’s final view of the two having sex over him, which wracks SM with severe guilt. Not wanting to let the mood die, he grabs a pan and starts feeding her food, which she eats in a strange, fetishsitic way. However, each time she bites the fork or chews on the food, he hears loud metallic noises in his head.
They begin to embrace, but again he once again sees a flash of their crime. Overcome with powerful emotions, a drill penis suddenly and violently ruptures out of his body through the table. It reveals to GF, in a shocking way, his ongoing transformation. He runs and slams a door, hiding in shame and agony. GF is terrified but she says that she isn’t scared of anything, wants to see him and support him. She forces her way in and tells him, “I told you I could take it,” expressing her love for him.
However, once she takes the towel off of his face and sees the now extensive metal growth, she screams in terror. He is enraged, and begins to chase her. He repeatedly tries to rape, and therefore murder, her with his drill penis, but she puts up a struggle. She slams the hot metal pan onto his face, but this fails to incapacitate him. Instead, the metal growths simply expand. She stabs him with a kitchen knife repeatedly, temporarily driving him to cower in a corner, where his transformations accelerate.
Wracked with despair, he tries to kill himself by forcing a fork into an electric socket, but to no avail. He cannot die. He is now a metallic being, with only a trace of his humanity left. With little psychological coherence or sentimentality remaining, he once again tries to rape her, growling “You want a taste of my sewage pipe?” She stabs him in the neck, apparently killing him. She falls over on top of his dying body, forcing the knife deeper into him while sobbing and kissing him.
He once again sees a vision of their crime and yelps in guilt. When he comes to, he sees that she has sat on his drill penis, potentially out of despair for apparently killing her boyfriend. Her insides are being twisted and ground up, her blood spattering everywhere. She falls dead.
MF cackles, as we are shown his new residency: a factory infused with pseudo-organic scrap metal growths. He emerges from his cocoon, brandishing a flamethrower growing from his forearm. He falls to the ground in pain, as the camera pans to a television nearby.
We see one of MF’s memories. A doctor (Naomasa Musaka)is speaking to MF. Dumbfounded, he tells him that there is a piece of metal stuck in brain, and that it’s a miracle that he’s still alive. The metal cannot be removed, and must live with it. It is left up to us to decide whether MF inserted this into his brain himself, as part of his fetish, or if it was a spontaneous growth.
MF shakily brings himself to his feet. Once again, his memory flashes to his transformation into an iron being. He screams, seeming to lose consciousness.
We join SM in his apartment, where he has completed his transformation into a fully iron being. He has placed GF’s corpse in a makeshift bathtub shrine, adorning her with flowers. He has not entirely lost his humanity yet, as he mourns her. His humanity, however, is doomed. He can no longer be intimate with beings of the flesh.
The phone rings, and MF is on the other side. He reveals himself to SM, telling him that he knows all about him and that he can’t escape. Using his powers, he plays the hit and run vision on SM’s TV on loop. SM begins crying in guilt. The TV turns to MF’s memory of the entire crime. SM and GF decide to stuff the dying MF in their car’s trunk and dump his body, rather than give him aid and potentially face legal consequences. They drive him to the woods and toss him into the dirt. GF, overcome by her arousal at MF’s dying gaze, begins having sex with SM right over MF’s dying form. We now fully understand the extent of GF and SM’s crimes toward MF. SM repeatedly forces a knife into an outlet to commit suicide, but it is as fruitless as his previous attempt.
MF prepares his appearance carefully, doing his makeup and hair in a goth style. He is readying himself to head to SM’s apartment. He then speeds through the city toward the apartment, with a bouquet in hand. The semi-ironic romantic imagery is not to be downplayed.
At SM’s apartment, metal items around the room begin to spontaneously fuse together. His cats fuse into the items, forming a bestial and unnatural iron creature. MF arrives at the apartment, fusing himself to the pipes of the building through a water faucet outside. Through the pipes, he attaches to the kitchen knife still in GF’s grip and reanimates her corpse as an avatar for himself. The corpse begins to chase SM wildly with the knife, stabbing violently at him with its new superhuman strength.
MF’s bouquet then bursts out of the corpse’s stomach, to the horror of SM. Her corpse decays rapidly, the liquidated flesh forming into a cackling MF. MF sarcastically hands the bouquet to SM. He pushes himself very close to SM’s face, telling him that his brain will soon turn metal.
He then slams a TV over his head and shows him a vision of the metallic “New World” to come. In the vision, SM struggles to escape a womb-like cocoon. The womb bursts open and the environment of the metal world itself begins to consume him. His body is rapidly reduced into bones, with a new metal form of life forcing its way out of his body like a colony of maggots. The vision ends, and MF torments him with the car crash memory once again.
MF uses his psychokinetic power over metal to push SM over large distances in the city, forcing him towards an unknown destination. They zoom through the streets, SM still blinded by the TV set and MF still torturing him with visions of the car crash. However, through an apparent mutual telepathic connection, MF experiences the agony of them as well. Finally, one last vision of the car crash leads into a temporary break.
In a shared vision, they are attacked by a homeless man wielding a metal rod (Renji Ishibashi). The vision appears to be a memory of MF’s, as his desperate pleas for the beating to stop transition into a child’s voice. The beating seems to be the origin of his fetish for metal, since the rod is nearly identical to that which he inserted into his calf at the beginning. MF and SM scream in unison, but MF’s scream phases into a moan of pleasure.
MF hits a barrel, falling to the ground and decaying. SM flies ahead to a scrap metal processing plant, where he finally collapses. His respite is brief, however. MF appears in the factory’s entrance, his true metallic form revealed. MF uses his psychokinetic-magnetic powers to fuse the surrounding scrap metal to SM’s flesh. SM‘s humanoid form is overtaken by the metal.
MF lifts his hand, turning it into the flamethrower form. He clearly has far greater control over his transformations than SM. He begins to advance toward SM to finish him off, now that he is immobile.
We hear MF’s internal monologue. He says that, when he began his transformation, his body assimilated with rusted metal. Thus, his metal body is now rusting. SM, however, assimilated stainless steel, so he is the ideal specimen of a citizen of the “New World.”
As he prepares to shoot SM, the latter panics begins to fuse MF into his own body. MF screams “Fuck you! Don’t you understand? Your future is metal!” SM responds by releasing his drill penis and stabbing MF. He then begins to absorb MF, despite the latter squealing warnings of the infectious rust disease.
MF tries to escape from the flesh, but fails. He then bursts into a snakelike appendage growing out of the central body, stretching to escape out of a window. SM pulls him all the way into the mess of metal flesh, fusing both of them with more scrap metal to seal them together.
We are treated to an image of them together inside of a literal womb, connected by an umbilical cord growth emerging from their respective forearms. They caress each other in a highly homoerotic manner. Once again, the “New World” sign is shown on screen.
They commence their reconstitution into a into a new form, now working together as one. They emerge into the streets of Japan as a giant tank shaped like a penis.
MF is at the head of the tank, gripping a gun, while SM is closer to the base. SM seems to be in a pure, nearly mindless state of pleasure, while MF serves as the brains of the operation.
MF declares, “We can mutate the whole world into metal.” SM moans in approval. “We can rust the world into the dust of the universe,” MF says. SM agrees, offering, “Sounds interesting.” MF shouts, “Our love can destroy this whole fucking world! Get them!” He fires his gun into the air.
The tank speeds through the city, preparing for its apocalyptic destruction. First Tokyo, then the world. After being shown the very brief credits, we are treated to the final title: “GAME OVER.”
Global Capital and Industrial Japan
Tsukamoto’s environment plays a major part in his choice of subject matter for this film. Born in Tokyo in 1960, he grew up in a Japan which was, in the wake of WWII, engaged in reconstruction.¹² The devastation of the war offered an opportunity for the Japanese and United States authorities to rebuild Japan in a more thoroughly capitalist vision.¹³ Many people from the countryside, displaced by the war, were driven out of their communities into the cities to pursue wage-labor.¹⁴ The industrialization of agricultural labor would intensify this rural migration in the decades to come.¹⁵ Taking advantage of this growing urban workforce, and employing state-directed market development, the Japanese economy emerged into what came to be known as one of the “Asian Tigers.”¹⁶
Thus, Japan was industrializing at a rapid pace in the 1960s, and a new, more thoroughly capitalist society was emerging. This period of development made a significant impression on the young Tsukamoto. In his memory, he reflected that “[c]ompared to children who grew up in the countryside, who could play in the mountains or fish in the river, us city kids were really underprivileged. I was kind of boxed in between the buildings and construction sites.”¹⁷ The oppressiveness, the lack of organic life, solidified itself as his basic impression of the emergent capitalist cities.
Like the cities which served as their setting, social relations became larger scale, more impersonal, and more bureaucratic. The state and large capitalist combines began to penetrate deeply into everyday life. They both hoped to forge a national community with the same content as the older Imperial visions, but in the new form of a consumer society.¹⁸
The film itself was produced during another industrial boom in Japanese history.¹⁹ With inequalities growing in the wake of an affluent society, and big corporations dominating the new era of the “Japanese Miracle,” the social ravages of the capitalist system were likely at the forefront of Tsukamoto’s mind during production.²⁰ A fixation on the proletarian, underclass element of society is a regular feature of Tsukamoto’s early films. Later, in Bullet Ballet (1998), he would explore these themes further.
In his depictions of metal transformation in the film, as discussed earlier, we can understand this as a representation of capitalist development in Japan. Tsukamoto’s concern with the ‘metallization’ of daily life and the fusing of organic bodies, of bones, muscles, organs, and skin, with metal is essentially an unconscious identification of a basic logic of capital. The inorganic, the abstract, dominates the organic, the concrete. The point of labor is to serve the ‘god’ of capital, rather than to serve real human beings.
The Metal Fetishist is representative of many of the laborers drawn to the capitalist city for wage-labor. Like many of those proletarians, he is confined to a destitute underclass condition, living in a tiny slum apartment. He lives a precarious existence, being treated as essentially ‘social trash.’
He worships the metal world around him, forcing it into his very own body. This can perhaps be understood as the embracing of the system by a proletarian, as he wishes to literally become a metal being. Beaten by metal in childhood, he now embraces it as a fetish. Metal as capital exploits him, it permeates his existence and denigrates his quality of life. Yet, he loves it. Like many proletarians, he may believe that he can himself become a representative of capital, a capitalist, by internalizing a proper work ethic.
He certainly internalizes the fetish-form of capital in this film when he forces metal into his calf. As he does this after we are shown his cut outs of basketball players, we can speculate that he did so with the belief that he would thereby reach a higher level of athleticism. Such an aspiration toward self-transformation, forcing one to a greater capacity for muscular power, is something many proletarians strive to as a means of ‘self-improvement.’ In bourgeois ideology, self improvement is the key to class ascendancy, since capitalists are capitalists due to greater thrift and effort.
On the other hand, the Salaryman is a perfect specimen of the professional workforce, usually referred to as white-collar laborers in the West. He still works for a living, but he is of a far more respected social standing than the slum-dwelling proletarian Metal Fetishist. He is a representative of the typical consumer in Japan’s middle class civil society. His Girlfriend shares his class, both in his outlook and his values. However, while he is passive and submissive (like many office workers constantly groveling for a promotion), she is assertive and dominant.
Between the Salaryman and Metal Fetishist, there is a significant class tension. There is not a class struggle, as between the capitalist owners and the proletarian workers. Rather, it is more of a tension of social status and inclusion in consumer affluence. The Salaryman and his Girlfriend look upon the Metal Fetishist as essentially disposable. They do not value his life at all. When they hit him with their car, they have no qualms about disposing his body in a forest. Not only that, but he is so dehumanized in their eyes that they eagerly have sex over his dying body.
There is a certain sadism to these relationships. GF, certainly one of the most naturally sadistic characters in the film, pushes the submissive, and perhaps masochistic, SM to dispose of MF, and initiates sex afterwards. She is aroused by his last gasps of breath, by his barely conscious gaze. She enjoys his suffering, and the Salaryman is complicit in this sadistic endeavor. The suffering of the underclass, the super-exploited, becomes an article of consumption and pleasure for the professional middle class.
MF exerts his revenge on SM by transforming him into an inhuman form and forcing him to repeatedly witness MF’s exploitation from the perspective of the victim. Their final fusion takes on the form of metal, the capital fetish. In their conjoined form, both of them now take on a role as an active exploiting agent. They are no longer divided by one consuming the products of suffering from the other. Now, they are united by their common goal of exploiting and destroying of all organic life.
They become the embodiment of the expansive tendency of capital. If capital is not reinvested, if it is not fed by returns, it decays. It must forever expand if it is not to be destroyed. The metal beings expand just the same. The “New World” which MF envisions is essentially a world fully enveloped by the kind of capitalist development Tsukamoto was witnessing. And in order for such a world to be even be possible, organic life must be eliminated. Flesh beings, like the Salaryman in the womb, must be devoured to feed capital. In other words, for capital to live, the earth must die.
Gender and the Rejection of Biological Reproduction
Tsukamoto himself has emphasized the centrality of eroticism to Tetsuo.²¹ Sadism and masochism, pleasure and pain, and organic and inorganic complement each other in the libidinal impulses of the film.
The aforementioned sadism of Girlfriend and the complicity of the masochistic Salaryman is central to their relationship, and to the crime for which the Metal Fetishist wishes to punish them. The derivation of pleasure from pain figures heavily throughout. GF and SM extract pleasure from the dying agonies of MF. MF is specifically incensed by this sexual act they perform over his body. MF reaches a manic bliss as he torments SM and ruins his life. SM, as his humanity crumbles away, experiences a thrill as he terrifies GF with the threat of rape and a painful death. MF has a very strong homoerotic attraction to SM, at the same time as he exerts his vengeance on him.
This pleasure-pain relationship takes the form of exploitation in each instances. SM and GF exploit MF, and MF exploits SM in turn. When they unite in a homosexual relationship, literally becoming one large phallic symbol, their bonds are based on a common goal of exploitation. Even the scene of SM feeding GF food in an erotic manner takes the form of pleasure deriving from consumption, from the using up of products. The eroticism of the film is an essentially extractive eroticism.
Gender figures strongly in the relationship of organic and inorganic. GF is a woman with a very strong libido and will, acting as the dominant force in her relationship with SM. SM is, in conventional terms, emasculated. He is submissive, masochistic, and physically weak. Not only does GF dominate him, but he is also chased down and assaulted by the petite woman from the train station. In his dream after the chase, he imagines his girlfriend as having a cartoonishly large phallus, which she uses to rape him. Even as he is seemingly the breadwinner in his relationship, he accords no authority through this role.
When taking this situation with conventional gender expectations in mind, particularly in a staunchly patriarchal society such as Japan, a humiliation likely lies beneath the surface. A violent, brutish response to this humiliation, an assertion of masculinity in the terms of bourgeois-patriarchal society, has the potential to bubble to the surface. And, in the form of his transformation, it does.
SM’s violent ‘metallization,’ wrought by strong emotions, is intensified by feelings of rage. When he sprouts a drill penis, potentially as a pointed punishment from MF for his sexual crime, we see the interplay of masculinity with his transformation from organic to inorganic. He transitions directly from whimpering humiliation to masculinist fury when GF screams at his grotesque form. In a blind rage, his immediate expression of his masculinity is to try to rape her.
Here, the bourgeois-patriarchal conception of masculinity as the domination, the exploitation, of femininity as an object is out and in the open. For failing to loyally serve him and push down her perfectly reasonable reaction to him spontaneously sprouting a metal penis and growing metal out of his face, he wishes to force GF into the position of a mere receiver of pain for his own sadistic pleasure. Becoming a manly man, he adopts the role of the sadist. Capitalist relations as extraction, and bourgeois law as ‘equivalent’ punishment for crimes of breaking contracts, are expressed through his violent assault on GF.
Yet, in his masculinization, he loses himself. He can no longer be intimate. He destroys his identity, dissolving into a mindless rage. As the transformation takes over more of his body, his cognitive functions increasingly take the form of powerful emotions and lose their distinct forms. This violent, bourgeois-patriarchal masculinity destroys his humanity.
Tsukamoto’s critique of masculinity extends throughout his other films. Tokyo Fist (1995) was to be a much more conscious, explicit critique of violent hypermasculinity, again with the theme of dehumanization.
The homoeroticism of SM and MF also takes a form specific to this breed of bourgeois-patriarchal masculinity.
In patriarchal society, womanhood is a category regulated around capacity for biological reproduction. Confining womanhood to this, guarding both sides of the borders of this category in order to solidify it, is essentially a means of controlling women’s reproductive labor. Womanhood is forcibly produced and reproduced as a role of reproductive labor. Capital depends on this reproduction in order to ensure that male laborers supported for free and new generations of laborers are regularly born.
Yet, at the same time, it denigrates this form of labor as either without social value or of a lower social value. Masculine, public labor and functions of capital management are upheld, while feminine, private caretaking labor is ignored and obscured.
GF, as a cisgender woman, is capable of this biological reproduction. SM’s rejection of her is a rejection of organic, fleshly social reproduction. SM and MF, being cisgender men, embrace a homosexual relationship instead, albeit of a bourgeois form. It is not a rejection of patriarchy, but a distinct form of homoeroticism derived from misogyny and hatred of the organic.
Their common, homoerotic masculinity lies in valuing pleasure derived from pain, worshipping the sadistic exploitation of others. Further, they do not reject all reproduction. They embrace reproduction of inorganic, abstract capital over organic reproduction. They envision their love, their relationship, enveloping the world in the vision of capital.
The eroticism of organic and inorganic has another, important manifestation: obsession with objects. MF inserts a rod into his calf in order to satisfy his erotic fantasies. GF and SM partake in an erotic activity involving a fork and food. MF uses the inorganic form of his penis, the drill, to try to derive sadistic pleasure from the rape and destruction of GF. In the conclusion of the film, SM and MF are fused into a common inorganic form as a massive penis-shaped tank.
This obsession with objects as the medium of sexuality is once again, to make a painful pun, an instance of commodity fetishism. The intimate relations of sexuality are mediated through these objects, each of them in the form of metal-capital. Although the movie is brimming with intense sexuality, there is always a certain distance owing to this mediation.
When relationships take the form of person-commodity-person, rather than person-person, one can never be fully satisfied in intimacy. The solution for SM and MF is simply to fuse into a common form as the ultimate expression of commodity production: capital. Yet this comes at the price of a permanent separation from the organic except as a means of fueling the expansion of the inorganic.
The decades of Tsukamoto’s formative years saw significant public conflict over pollution in Japan. Many working class victims of pollution engaged in political demonstrations against the companies which had poisoned them, and some won legal battles.²² Yet today, what we have in mind when we think of ecological devastation from the capitalist system is far more global in scale. This is due to a heightened awareness of greenhouse gas emissions, which have radically increased since the beginning of the capitalist industrial revolution. We are now living through the consequences of capitalist disregard for ecology.
In discussions of geological history, there is an important disagreement about the labelling of the present geological epoch, which is affected significantly by the activity of human society. Some scientists argue for the label anthropocene, which fingers humanity in general as responsible for this significant, and destructive, change.²³ Others, such as Jason W. Moore, argue that this lacks specificity and fails to recognize the specific organization of human society as directly relevant to this issue. He argues for the label capitalocene instead, which pins the present capitalist society as the engine of ecological devastation.²⁴
Tsukamoto’s lack of recognition of capital as the engine of ‘metallization’ leads his conscious messaging in the direction of the anthropocene. However, in our reading, we can recognize his vision as essentially that of the capitalocene.
The transformation of the Salaryman’s flesh into something unrecognizable, inorganic, directly mirrors the ‘metallization’ of the earth and destruction of ecology in the name of capital. While SM and MF initially retain a humanoid form, it decays into something unrecognizable and imbalanced as they take in more metal-capital.
Organic forms, such as cats and plants, are absorbed into the metal form, being destroyed in the name of the thriving of capital. The ultimate vision of a completely inorganic “New World” is a dystopian, nightmare vision extreme of the capitalocene. It cannot last as a stable form, due to the rust disease inherent to MF’s form. This is consciously celebrated by the pair. They are happy to end the world as long as they derive personal pleasure from it.
The expansionary demand of capital in the film and in real life, and its conflict with the balance and rhythm of ecology, results in what Karl Marx referred to as a metabolic rift. When abstract, inorganic capital is the ‘point’ of society, concerns of the concrete, organic ecology are sacrificed to realization of capital. Capital must expand to survive, and so it cannot stop to be limited by the rhythms of ecology. Thus, as the Metal Fetishist says, the romantic union of the two male leads into a single capital-form becomes the vehicle to “destroy this whole fucking world.”
The film ends on an extremely bleak note. The Metal Fetishist and Salaryman are preparing to go on a rampage with a finale of the apocalypse. This is “GAME OVER” for humanity. The destructiveness of capital, the extinctive potential of the capitalocene, can easily lead us to a deep pessimism within the narrative and the society which produced it.
However, there is still a certain hope, even within such a harsh ending. The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch argued that there is a certain unconscious utopian impulse even in the most dystopian of visions. Here, in the union of MF and SM and their plan to unify the world in a single form, that is especially evident.
SM, as representative of intellectual labor, and MF as representative of manual labor, are finally united in an embrace. This abolition of distinction, of antithesis, from the antagonism we witnessed before, is remarkable. There is a great beauty in this, despite its destructive ends. At the same time, there is a certain implicitly revolutionary aspect within their misanthropic aims. Their first goal is the destruction of the city, the representative of the capitalist form of life. This is an impulsive desire which Tsukamoto himself identifies.²⁵
The project of unifying all life into a single form is a dystopian expression of the desire to restore intimacy in relationships, to abolish the person-commodity-person relationship and replace it with a unitary one. While in this form, it is through transforming the entirety of the organic into the inorganic, it still expresses a revolutionary potential.
The modern all-round interdependency of the global capitalist system, the socialization of production, chafes with the private management of that system by capitalists. This tension creates the need for social management of social production, and thus for a revolution by the working producers to establish this. Such a unification of society is the positive expression of this desire for unity and oneness.
Communism is itself a form of total destruction. It is the real movement to abolish the present state of things. Communism is, however, a constructive destruction. It is a destruction of class society in order to construct a new society in the ashes. It is the process of absolutely revolutionizing society.
Communism seeks to unseat order in order to abolish the chaos of that order, and re-establish balance in life through a conscious planning. Against capitalist exploitation, it seeks to establish a universal community of labor. Against loss of identity through atomization, it advocates for social identity. Against the metabolic rift of capitalism, it seeks to restore rhythm with ecology through social planning. And against the domination of the organic by the inorganic, it seeks to make life the primary end of labor.
“The notion of the class war can be misleading. It does not refer to a trial of strength to decide the question ‘Who shall win, who be defeated?,’ or to a struggle the outcome of which is good for the victor and bad for the vanquished.
To think in this way is to romanticize and obscure the facts. For whether the bourgeoisie wins or loses the fight, it remains doomed by the inner contradictions that in the course of development will become deadly. The only question is whether its downfall will come through itself or through the proletariat. The continuance or the end of three thousand years of cultural development will be decided by the answer. History knows nothing of the evil infinity contained in the image of the two wrestlers locked in eternal combat.
The true politician reckons only in dates. And if the abolition of the bourgeoisie is not completed by an almost calculable moment in economic and technical development (a moment signaled by in inflation and poison-gas warfare), all is lost. Before the spark reaches the dynamite, the lighted fuse must be cut. The interventions, dangers, and tempi of politicians are technical — not chivalrous.”
— Walter Benjamin, “Fire Alarm,” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings²⁶