BCoombs2


Metal ManhoodSubjugation, Dominance and Cyberpunk Heroism in Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Brittany Coombs
8 May 2012
Prof. Martin Irvine
CCTP 725: "Cultural Hybridity"

tet.pngClocking in at sixty-seven minutes, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) by director Shinya Tsukamoto is a short film. Its running time, however, is belied by its legacy. William E. B. Verrone calls Tetsuo “[o]ne of the most original and influential films to emerge from Japan over the last twenty-five years … a mind-blowing and ear-shattering excursion into a visual ‘metal machine music’” (150). Tsung-Yi Michelle Huang echoes the popular belief that Tetsuo, along with its sequels, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo III: The Bullet Man (2009), “established Tsukamoto’s suo.pnginternational reputation as one of the best Japanese film makers of his generation (81). Set in a pseudo-modern Tokyo, Tetsuo uses “minimal plot, provocative visual effects, and piercing industrial music” to tell a haunting cyberpunk story about metallocentric cyborgian metamorphosis (Huang 81).

At the center of the film—which Huang paints as “[a] combination of Japanese manga and quasi-Blade Runner cyberpunk” (81)—is an unnamed businessman whom it is tempting to believe is a cyberpunk hero: after all, he occupies the vast majority of screen time, and as Tetsuo is a prime example of the Japanese cyberpunk genre, it figures that its protagonist would be the all-important cyberpunk hero—masculine, powerful, conquering. But a closer reading of Tetsuo reveals that the protagonist is not a cyberpunk hero—at least, not initially. The cyberpunk hero of Tetsuo is another unnamed character, who despite his invisibility for much of the film, violently triggers all of its action. Dubbed by filmmakers and fans as the Metal Fetishist, this oft-downplayed character is the real cyberpunk hero of Tetsuo—not coincidentally because he is also ‘more’ of a man. The Metal Fetishist changes the protagonist—acts upon him, sculpts him—while the protagonist spends most of his time weeping, bleeding and fleeing. The former character represents the heroic masculine ideal; the latter, the feminine terrain which that ideal conquers.

Thomas Michaud defines cyberpunk as “a science fiction movement that describes the future of industrial countries, depicting the influence of massive telecommunications networks upon the lives of individuals and societies” (Hassler and Wilcox 65). Ollivier Dyens points out that cyberpunk stories are usually “set in a near future (fifty to one hundred years from now)” in a “chaotic society [that is] governed by a maelstrom of street gangs, multinational corporations, and mercenaries” (74). As a genre cyberpunk is ruled by masculinity and maleness, its seminal works in the West including Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Judge Dredd (1995), The Fifth Element (1997) and The Matrix (1999), which all revolve around a handsome, awe-inspiring male protagonist who struggles to find order in an ultramodern dystopia. The gender-power thread uniting these works is not a coincidence. As Sharon Stockton explains, masculinity and femininity in a fictional cyberpunk world are best understood as forming the dichotomy between a roguish, phallus-owning hero and an anarchic environment that must be tamed by him. “It seems clear to me that it is cyberpunk’s project to remythologize an earlier, powerfully autonomous subject through a literary form that is, in effect, a latter-day version of adventure/romance,” Stockton claims. “The cyberpunk ‘self’ [is] defined as male” and is pronounced in “the roles of swashbuckling pirate and/or American cowboy” (588).

Stockton uses pirates and cowboys as an example because she focuses primarily on the sexuality of Western cyberpunk, which preceded generic Japanese emulation by about one decade: the German Welt am Draht (World on a Wire) was released in 1973, while Bakuretsu Toshi (Burst City), directed by well known Japanese auteur Gakuryu Ishii, came in 1982. She even specifies that the “enemies” of the (Western) cyberpunk hero are typically “Japanese megacorporations that deny individualist achievement” (589), entities that have long clashed with America’s trademark, slightly rebellious sense of Rooseveltian ‘rugged’ness. A Western cyberpunk hero cannot be a company man, Stockton writes, because a company man is necessarily ‘under’ someone, subjugated in a hierarchy that denies him more power than he exercises. The cyberpunk hero “is the antithesis of corporate organization,” she says, because he is destined to be “pure subject in a world of pure object, … phallic projection into a feminized matrix that approximates the universe” (589). Jane Chi Hyun Park agrees, noting that cyberspace, at times represented in cyberpunk fiction by the waiting-to-be-acted-upon metropolis, functions as “a doubled Other: both female and ‘oriental’ (primarily Japanese)” (61). If the presence of a Japanese element imbues something with Otherness, then presumption of viewership is clearly oriented to the West.

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The Metal Fetishist (here pictured in his lair) and postwar Japan are alike, argues Takayuki Tatsumi: both are obsessed with the compounds and alloys that can (re)build cities... and bodies.
Further separation between Japan and the West emerges when we consider the metallocentricism of Japanese cyberpunk, a philosophy that heavily defines Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Takayuki Tatsumi holds that, despite claims made in 1949 by his Japanese compatriot Kiyoteru Hanada, metallocentricism is a thoroughly Eastern, if not specifically Japanese, school of thought. Tatsumi contends that since the Renaissance, Europeans have had a “hard-core anthropocentric” and “too humanistic” preoccupation with “the organic over the inorganic … vegetation over minerals, animals over vegetation, and especially human beings over other animals”—basically, with anything that is the opposite of metal (165). Though agreeing with Hanada on a basic level that Don Juan, the legendary fictional Italian (and thereby Western) lover, is a “metallocentric precursor of [Tetsuo]”, Tatsumi specifies that “the genealogy of the metallocentric imagination is essentially compatible with the history of the postwar Japanese mental condition,” in that Japan developed a ‘metallivorousness’—a special obsession with strong earthy compounds and alloys—in the midst of its need to rebuild cities which had been decimated in World War II (167).


Yet even with these controversial differences, Japanese and Western cyberpunk are alike at their cores, united with an especial firmness by discussion of gender and what that binary means for a science-fictional world and its characters. For all the apprehension that the West has historically courted at the mention of Japanese conglomeration—at the apparent abolition of ‘rugged individualism’—Western countries owe their powerful influence in the modern era to the rise of capitalistic enterprise, which is, of course, a primary reason why Corporate Japan (and Corporate America, for that matter) function as they do. Stockton argues that capitalism and phallocentricism are equally important in constructing the cyberpunk hero. “[I]n cyberpunk,” she claims, “the alienated capital of late capitalism has grown into the alienated information capital of late capitalism, and this free-floating information capital has become, symbolically and cyclically, unalienated nature—nature defined as available raw material” (589). If we remember the Western-based metaphor of the cowboy or pirate that pillages whatever space he travels, we understand that cyberspace, birthed by and alongside modern capitalism, opens new avenues for subjugation of the environment and its elements—new methods by which to express masculinity. These methods can be virtual and electronic, as these are often defining characteristics of the cyberpunk environment. Praised more than any other nation for its technological prowess, Japan is therefore just as capable as any Western country of producing a cyberpunk hero that conforms to traditionally Western models of maleness. Tetsuo could in fact be proof positive that Japan is even better equipped than the U.S., prime producer of most noted cinematic cyberpunk, at creating a cyberpunk hero who not only satisfies the Western mold but shatters it. I refer now to the concept of male feminization, which in Tetsuo is depicted with a zealous explicitness quite rarely seen in Western cinema.

Sporting a “convoluted and bizarre” narrative, “Tetsuo is about the merging of metal and flesh, and its graphic representation of this blending or commingling leaves one exhausted (and perhaps confused) by the end,” writes Verrone (150). Of course, this is far from the only thing that Tetsuo is about. Fundamentally, though, the film is a classic tale of revenge. It opens with a man, the Metal Fetishist as he has come to be known in fandom, walking to his hidden shanty-lair, which is situated amongst miscellaneous metallic rubbish—springs, wires, machine parts, hangers and fans. Décor suggests that he is obsessed with understanding the essence of what it means to be human: imitation cave paintings are etched on his walls, and he has surrounded himself with cut-out pictures of muscular Olympic runners. The plot of the movie is thrust into motion when the Metal Fetishist, true to his name, gashes open his thigh and inserts a corrugated metal rod into the wound. At the moment he does this, his photographed runners burst into flame—an indication that his humanity, in contrast to that of the now-burned athletes who had a visceral, obvious humanness, has been compromised.

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The transformation begins.
The film then cuts to the unnamed protagonist: a Japanese businessman who lives in his own private haven of metal and electronics—his television blares, his fan is always near him, he shaves himself meticulously with his electric razor. One morning he notices a small metal object poking through his cheek. When he touches it, it spurts blood, and he realizes that it is strangely emerging from inside of him. The situation soon escalates: his forearm and his ankle begin to burst and bubble and steam, motorized mechanisms slowly but surely becoming one with his natural body. Through flashbacks we learn that this transformation is owed to a chance encounter the protagonist had had earlier with the Metal Fetishist. Driven mad by the sight of maggots squirming in his self-inflicted thigh wound, the Metal Fetishist had run into the street, where he was struck by a car driven by the protagonist. Presuming the Metal Fetishist dead, the protagonist had then moved his body to a disposal site in the woods with the help of his girlfriend, who was so aroused by the event she initiated sex within view of the Fetishist—who was, in fact, still alive.


As revenge against the couple, specifically against its male member, for attempting to conceal his ‘murder,’ the Metal Fetishist begins to project his internalization of metal, which is both literal and psychological, onto the protagonist. It is in this way that Tetsuo tells a story that is as phallic as it is feminine. At first glance it appears to viewers that the protagonist is a powerful man: multiple flashbacks portray the same sex act that occurred in the woods following the dumping of the Fetishist’s ‘body,’ and a later sex act with his girlfriend, occurring after his metallic metamorphosis has begun but far before it has taken full effect, is another portrayal of his dominance upon a female body—a reminder to himself, amidst the disconcertion of mutation, that he is still an actor, a subject, and that his girlfriend, to contrast, has always been and will always be an object, a space upon which actions occur. Even the dress of the protagonist connotes power. Returning to Stockton’s argument that male power and corporatism are inseparable in critical analyses of cyberpunk heroism, the protagonist is initially depicted in the film as a stoic, buttoned-down professional: he wears a suit and tie and black-rimmed glasses, he carries a briefcase, and his dark hair is slicked back. While his job is never made clear, he is shown as a having a morning routine that would fit the life of an ambitious corporate man. It is suggested that, with every sunrise, he rides the train into the kind of bustling metropolis that houses many modern companies.

But it becomes evident that the protagonist, while perhaps owning a powerful appearance, is in fact a symbol of vulnerability and weakness. Indeed, as Crauford Goodwin and Alex Rogers note, “Often, even the most successful in the cyberpunk world are little more than indentured servants to the corporation” (46). Seeking vengeance, the Metal Fetishist ‘enters’ the physical body of the protagonist, somehow transporting the metal elements he has had to manually insert into his own body into the body of his ‘killer.’ “It is important to remember that the plain over which the cowboy rides (into which he makes inroads, which he conquers, subdues, and makes his own) is conceived as ‘virgin’ territory,” Stockton writes. “[T]his femininity is crucial to the ideology of imperial capitalism” (590). Comparing the transmutation of the protagonist to an imperialist take-over or invasion only makes clearer the feminine station the protagonist must occupy in order for the Fetishist to exact revenge. How does the Metal Fetishist gain access to the body of the protagonist? Tetsuo is deliberately vague about the specifics. This is because the precise methodology of the attack by the Fetishist is not important. What the film wants us to focus on is the fact that the initially projected and audience-perceived masculinity of the protagonist has been proven defective and deficient—that his body has been feminized, reduced to a state of occupation by an external force that is evidently more powerful and more phallic.

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In a possible callback to the tentacle rape of Japanese 'hentai' (dehumanizing child/female-based pornography), the protagonist is assaulted by his girlfriend, who is possessed by the Metal Fetishist.
Any doubt about this reading of Tetsuo’s sexual dynamic is crushed by a telling scene that occurs near the halfway point of the film. As the protagonist begins to realize the severity of his situation, he slips into a disturbing dream: his girlfriend stands above him in a dominatrix-like outfit, long metal piping attached above her genitals and snaking through the room. The piping moves as though it has a mind of its own or is powered by unseen forces. The protagonist, meanwhile, is naked, sweaty, panting and wide-eyed—frightened as he rests on all fours. Finally, the
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The metal pipe of his dream-rape has a mind of its own.
girlfriend picks up the ‘head’ of the piping and licks it before thrusting its length into the protagonist. He moans in pain as the corrugated serpent moves into his anus. The girlfriend—whose body it is later revealed had been possessed by the Fetishist—smiles as clouds of hot smoke fill the room.


The entire scene is a validation of how defenseless the protagonist is and feels at the hands of the transformative force that is invading him. It is also a cinematic callback to hentai, or pornographic Japanese anime—specifically, to the tentacle sex for which Japan had become (in)famous by the 1980s due to federal sanctions against depicting human intercourse and genitalia. Dennis D. Waskul notes that tentacle sex or rape, the “most extreme and uncommon version” of hentai, has no basis in reality and thus “exists for its own purpose as an erotic phantasm of the strange and teratological” (99). Tentacle penetration is unrealistic, he says, because it is absurd to imagine “nubile girl-women and cloned boy-men” as “the order of the day—a monstrous sex-feast” involving “sex with machines, sex with cyborgs, sex with dangerous protruding tentacles, and, of course, an endless stream of the most debasing, brutal, and humiliating rape images” (100). While the scene in Tetsuo is not nearly as graphic as any scene found in typical hentai, it shares with hentai an implicit sense that its portrayed rape victim is broken, is garbage—a conquest to be desecrated both physically and emotionally. Even more power is stripped from the protagonist for the fact that, in his dream sequence, he is an adult—a male adult—who is being raped. In most hentai, as Waskul observes, the victim is a prepubescent female. The protagonist cannot be the cyberpunk hero of Tetsuo because he encapsulates “the feminine [that] has traditionally been conceived in the West as that passive field which foregrounds masculine activity and identity formation” (Stockton 590). He is the blank canvas upon which the Metal Fetishist paints, which makes the Metal Fetishist the real cyberpunk hero despite his lacking screen time and back story. If this can be accepted—while it was never in doubt that Tetsuo was always about more than one person’s metamorphosis—new avenues of rumination emerge. With the Metal Fetishist as the unquestioned hero, it becomes possible to imagine Tetsuo as a phantasmagorical investigation into what it takes to ‘make’ a man, both literally and metaphorically—and, therefore, what it takes to ‘make’ a cyberpunk hero, who in both the East and West is typically masculine.

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With newfound power, the protagonist can make anything turn to metal... including his own cat.
One particular conclusion thus seems natural to draw from Tetsuo
that only a man can make another man, or that a ‘true’ man is only made by another man. Although womanly involvement is unavoidable in procreation, Tetsuo suggests that, in an ideal (cyberpunk) situation, there would be no feminine aspect to the process, especially as relates to the creation of men. Only three characters are present in Tetsuo: the male Fetishist, the male protagonist, and his female girlfriend. Of the two male characters, we have established that one, the protagonist, displays markers of feminism for the fact that his body is the wilderness to be tamed by the Metal Fetishist, who through means unexplained enacts a hostile take-over of the body of his ‘killer.’ But eventually, the protagonist is able to shed this femininity; in time he is ‘made’ into a man. Ironically if not paradoxically, while the fact his transformation can occur at all signals his being like a woman—or even a ‘girl-woman’ to use terminology from Waskul—upon full completion of his change into a metal monster, he wields more power than he ever could have dreamed to as an ordinary man. As a machinic cyborg, he exercises control over his environment in ways that were previously impossible to him, in ways that remain impossible to everyone in the world except for him and the Fetishist. Through some combination of psychokinesis and magnetism, he comes to be able to literally bend anything metallic to his will—bicycles, garbage cans, toys, utensils. Testing his newfound power with a gleeful curiosity, he even forces his cat to suffer an expedited version of his own fate, combining the creature with nearby metallic objects to form a meowing monstrosity. How does he become so powerful when, upon initiation of the metamorphosis, he was made so weak? Penetration is the name of the game. The protagonist was reduced to a station of femininity because his physical body had been compromised by a foreign presence: the Metal Fetishist, while not with a literal phallus, in many other senses ‘penetrated’ the body of the protagonist. The result of this penetration was something not dissimilar from a pregnancy—the protagonist medically ailed while harboring an alien influence, and, in the end, this influence caused him to rupture both physically and mentally. But unlike a pregnancy, which results in expulsion of the alien element, the protagonist became the metal intrusion that had been cooking inside of him. “In cyberpunk novels and films, technologies are … the unifying theme allowing characters to experience new configurations of birth, life, death, and rebirth,” writes Dyens. “But most significantly, cyberpunk technologies are incubators of extraordinarily altered forms of life” (74). His body transformed from tiny to tinny, the protagonist no longer has a penis made of muscles and nerves and veins, but instead wields an electric power drill that rotates loudly in perpetual motion. Although this new ‘tool’ precludes intercourse in the traditional sense, it is able to achieve a vastly more powerful form of ‘penetration’—death by stabbingwhich makes him a vastly more powerful individual.

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The protagonist accidentally guts his girlfriend...
The protagonist and his girlfriend are shown to have plenty of sex: Tetsuo often provides flashbacks to their encounter in the woods, aroused by the disposal of the ‘body’ of the Fetishist; and after his tentacled dream rape, the protagonist initiates another encounter—presumably to reassert, at least in his own mind, the power he feels is draining from him as his mutation continues. But sexual dominance does not compare with vital dominance, with supreme control over life and death. Brandishing a metal phallus instead of a fleshy one, the protagonist newly boasts this power. When his mind is possessed by the Fetishist, who wills
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...and her guts end up swirling on his new drill-phallus.
him, at one point, to kill his girlfriend, she manages to subdue him but does so by sitting too close to his drill-phallus. She accidentally impales herself, her blood spraying the curtains behind them, the gore-coated twisted helix of his ‘penis’ spinning so quickly that smoke—like the kind that appeared in his imaginary assault—emanates from its base. It is thus implied that before the intervention of the Metal Fetishist, the protagonist was a cog in the corporate machine and not a real man; that only through invasion or ‘penetration’ of the protagonist, the effective subjugation and feminization of his space, is he able to achieve true manhood, represented by a new phallus that is far more potent and commanding than the average penis. It is all but an über-penis, so extraordinary as to transcend traditional penetration (which is simply sexual and not fatal). Indeed, as Huang writes, it is at the point that he skewers his girlfriend that the protagonist “realizes he has irreversibly become a metal fetishist” (82).


With a new penis to go along with a burgeoning new body, the protagonist is essentially being remade, reborn. Vaguely Tetsuo in this way could be said to hark back to various Western mythologies that speak of heroes being born without womanly involvement. Athena, the most popular (and masculine) of the female Greco-Roman gods, and one of its most enduring in general, springs to mind—just as she did from that of Zeus, her father, having no mother. More specifically, though, Tetsuo seems to say that femininity is a flawed state and that masculinity is the ultimate individual condition: the film’s subtitle alludes not only to the fact that metal now dictates the protagonist’s life, but that his attainment and absorption of it makes him an ‘iron man,’ a man of strength and virility. In order for the protagonist to achieve this arch-masculinity, his initial feminization was required. Tetsuo therefore teaches us that it takes being acted upon to become an actor. Dyens supports this line of thinking: “For cyberpunks,” he states, “the human ‘I’ lives only when woven into a degraded body in which technology, society, and culture coexist” (75).

Even the Metal Fetishist is evidence of this philosophy, as it is not until he ruptures his own body—in effect, raping himself or bringing about his own feminization through the insertion of the (phallic) metal rod into his thigh—that he displays the power to remotely control the actions of the protagonist and to ‘rape’ his body. Dyens acutely observes that in cyberpunk “realms filled with ‘ahuman’”—his term for “algorithmic realties created and maintained by networks” instead of by real human beings—“the only way one can truly be ‘saved’ or ‘redeemed’ is by repudiating one’s own body” (74). Here the link that Stockton draws between phallocentricism and imperialism is especially pertinent. The notion that penetration feminizes but ultimately makes masculine—when the ‘penetrated’ assimilates and adopts the characteristics of the ‘penetrator,’ which was masculine enough to ‘penetrate’ in the first place—is wholly colonizational. It is really the contestable notion that imperialist takeover, while at first resisted necessarily, in the end does more good than harm. For this reason Tetsuo might be interpreted as an imperialist allegory, one that is driven by the inevitable resistance of an environment—i.e., the protagonist’s body—that is destined to be colonized. “The protagonist hackers [n.b.—the Metal Fetishist] ‘project’ into a feminized field,” writes Stockton, “[and] the plot complication consists in the revolt of this terrain which should be passive” (591). Dani Cavallaro holds a similar position, noting that cyberculture is simultaneously touted as a tool that enables freedom and one that facilitates domination over others. “Cyberculture is alternately construed as a liberating experience verging on the sublime,” she writes, “and as a means of reinscribing conventional prejudices about identity and colonial fantasies of conquest” (173).

If only a man can ‘make’ another man, we can also conclude that Tetsuo means to tell us something about what is required for a man to be or to qualify as a cyberpunk hero. The Metal Fetishist, as we have established, is the cyberpunk hero for the majority of the film, perhaps from the moment he penetrates his own body and becomes something more than human. According to Stockton, the word “cyberpunk” comes from the Greek word kuernetes, which means “pilot” (593). Moreover, she juxtaposes the notion of a cyberpunk hero against the standard of “mythic hero” proposed by Timothy Leary. A cyberpunk hero, Leary says, is “clever, creative, entrepreneurial, imaginative, enterprising, fertile, ingenious, inventive, resourceful, talented, [and] eccentric” (Stockton 593). But for all the enviable traits of this character, Stockton observers that he is “[a]lways located in opposition to the system, always oppressed by ‘sensible normal’ people” and is thus only admired as the genius or pioneer that he is until much later in plot development (593). Because Tetsuo depicts the Metal Fetishist as an insane and deluded hermit, it is tempting to argue against his having intellectual powers that are vastly superior to those of the protagonist. The Fetishist, however, does successfully mastermind his revenge from the dirty and exiled edge of society. There can thus be no question that he has the imagination and talent outlined by Leary to be a model cyberpunk hero, if perhaps a ‘Bizarro’ one for his malice, as well as the ability to “pilot” not only his own fate but the fate of others.

Furthermore, despite the questionably severe nature of the Fetishist’s revenge, “[t]he cyberpunk hero,” as Goodwin and Rogers observe, “does not usually have the moral virtues normally associated with heroes. In fact, the cyberpunk hero often engages in criminal activities.” Indeed, they continue, “every new technology is to some extent intrusive” and “technology is never neutral” in cyberpunk, with information technologies being “so inimical to the individual that [they] can only be classified as evil” (46-7). Though it is never explained howthe Metal Fetishist ruins the protagonist—at one point he ominously states that “[t]he metal bar I implanted was rusty … and the rust fused with my cells”—the fact that his actions are immoral by most standards does not preclude him from cyberpunk heroism. If anything, his wickedness seems to make him more qualified for the title. In some sense the Metal Fetishist cannot even be blamed for the course of action he takes against the protagonist. As characters in a cyberpunk fiction, both he and the protagonist are always already vulnerable, owning bodies that are all but meant in a cyberpunk universe to be ‘hacked.’ “In fact, the typical cyberpunk protagonist sees his body as something essentially foreign, neither essence nor materiality, but host to a multitude of frequently parasitic beings,” Dyens states. “Like a bee in a hive, a cyberpunk body belongs to a multitude. Paradoxically, then, the loss of his individuality and human specificity is fundamental to a cyberpunk’s ontology” (75). Goodwin and Rogers additionally hold that, “For cyberpunk authors, the hero is the loner who fights the system, who wants something more than merely to pay homage and kowtow to the corporation” (46). Tetsuo gives us every reason to believe that the protagonist is a faceless drone in a huge corporation. The actions of the Metal Fetishist prove that the Fetishist is greater than that, better than that, stronger than that—and he shows this by reducing the protagonist to feminine helplessness through the transformation, which he cannot stop despite his agony. The Fetishist is the aggressor, spitefully assuring the protagonist in separate scenes toward the end of the film: “I know all about you. You can’t get away from me. … Soon even your brain will turn to metal.”

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The protagonist and the Metal Fetishist meet face-to-face for the first time, and the protagonist realizes the cause of his transformation.
Nevertheless, once the protagonist realizes that his torture is but part of a twisted vendetta, he does enjoy momentary power over the Metal Fetishist. In a middle-of-nowhere mill loaded with mechanical debris, the protagonist and the Fetishist have a final battle. The Fetishist begins to turn himself into a metal cyborg on the spot. “Fuck you,” he screams at his victim, who by now has become a bulbous metal ogre covered in plates and gaskets and wires. “You’re better off being a miserable chunk of metal the rest of your life!” But the protagonist fends off the attacking Fetishist, stabbing him with his drill-phallus. At first it appears
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The two combine into a giant phallus.
the Metal Fetishist has been defeated per this penetration; he crumples to the ground, blood-oil oozing from his lips, and the protagonist starts to integrate him into his gigantic metal corpus. The Metal Fetishist looks to have become the new phallus of the protagonist, his agonized face attached to the end of a long, retractable tube. Ultimately, however, the cyberpunk hero is victorious. Winning an internal battle with the protagonist after his integration into him, the Fetishist fuses with the protagonist into a new metal super-creature that resembles a giant penis. Reclaiming the throne of arch-masculinity, the Metal
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"Sounds like fun."
Fetishist sits at the ‘head’ of the structure, a gun welded to his cyborgian arm. He suggests to the protagonist—who is strong and virile in that he is part of a engorged metal phallus, but still ‘below’ the hero in station—that they team up to bring about Armageddon. “How about turning the whole world into metal? You and me,” the Fetishist asks. “And we can rust the whole world and scatter it into the dust of the universe.” Permanently semi-defeated, the protagonist accedes: “Sounds like fun.” It is a well known trope in cyberpunk fiction, says Dyens, for disturbed characters to enact or inflict their suffering upon the wider world. “In fact, what cyberpunk fictions chiefly depict is the spread of a new and global schizophrenia, one based not only the inability to cope with great, ahuman societal changes, but also on the inability to cope with bodily mutations and alterations” (75). In effect, the Metal Fetishist and the protagonist plan to enunciate their power by treating the earth as if it were their personal virtual playground that can be influenced, altered and destroyed. In this way the whole world is transformed into a kind of cyberspace—its reality ceases to be ‘real’ for the protagonist and the Fetishist, and rather becomes an empty condition that merely awaits their corruption or inscription. “Cyberspace is not physically accessible,” Michaud states. “It is necessary to use a machine to connect through cognition. Cyberspace assures the fusion of cognition and artificial worlds” (Hassler and Wilcox 67). As machines—as one machine—the two characters have made the planet their cyberspace: after their nihilistic declaration, the camera zooms through the streets of modern Japan, taking in the homes and cars and trees and office buildings that they will obliterate, if only because they can. This is the sole reason why it can be argued that the protagonist is (or rather, becomes) a cyberpunk hero
alongside the Metal Fetishist, he can now ‘penetrate’ the world as if it were a malleable wilderness.

The combination of the Fetishist and the protagonist into a single entity is also perhaps a reflection of the two biggest trends in science regarding artificial intelligence: centralized control systems and ‘layering,’ which is also called ‘subsumption architecture.’ “For a long time,” as Cavallaro explains, “scientists were interested in devising automata that imitated the structure of the human nervous system—a hierarchical network governed by a privileged center.” But as it became evident that nothing ‘like’ a brain can yet match the power of a real brain, scientists moved toward “assembl[ing automata] through the layering of separate units, each corresponding to a specific behavior system, without any dominating ruler from above” (Cavallaro 173). The hybridization of the Fetishist and the protagonist that occurs at the end of Tetsuo can be read as a hybridization of these two influential but separate scientific tracks. Though amalgamated into one giant being, both characters remain distinct and retain individual sentience on par with layering. But in the tradition of brain-like rule “from above”—to quote Cavallaro—the Fetishist declares, from a position of supreme power at the top of the structure, what the two of them will do. Still though, the amalgamation of the protagonist and the Metal Fetishist speaks to more than just the devastation they can wreak as powerful cyborgs—it also says something about their ability to create, even if the only thing a cyborg can support or produce is another cyborg. “Despite its graphic nature, the film explicitly deals with the way man-as-machine not only has the power and potential to destroy, but also to multiply and carry forth, mainly through machinery-as-flesh,” writes Verrone.

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It all started with a metallic protrusion on the cheek of an otherwise 'normal' protagonist.
Many conclusions can be drawn from this essay's analysis. One is that, despite well-noted variations between Japanese and Western cyberpunk, such as their different takes on Otherization and metallocentricism, the two are fundamentally alike in the staunch maleness of their cyberpunk heroes. Another is that the Metal Fetishist of the ground-breaking Tetsuo is the ‘hero’ of that fiction, despite his frequent absence from the screen in place of the protagonist, whose transformation is dissected by scholars far more
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Eventually, the protagonist is entirely metal.
often than is the role of the Fetishist in causing that transformation. The Metal Fetishist fits many descriptions of the prototypical cyberpunk hero: he is “inventive, resourceful, talented, [and] eccentric” to quote the model proffered by Timothy Leary, and he is also the “pilot” of many destinies, including those of every individual in the film, to refer to Sharon Stockton’s note that “cyberpunk” originates from the Greek word kuernetes. Even his nefariousness seems par for the course: cyberpunk heroism is often defined by dubious or nonstandard morality, as Craufurd Goodwin and Alex Rogers explain, and his hostile takeover of another body is to be expected in
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Arch-masculine 'penetrator' of the film, as well as its true cyberpunk hero, the Metal Fetishist gets vengeance in the end.
cyberpunk—a genre that, as Ollivier Dyens notes, insists upon the parasitical invasion of matrices both physical and electronic.


Primarily, however, Tetsuo reinforces the notion of the arch-masculine hero by presenting us with two characters: one who is ‘penetrated,’ and another who ‘penetrates.’ Penetration, the film teaches us, involves both strength and weakness, masculinity and femininity, much in the same way that capitalist/imperialist assimilation does. A phallus proves the frailty or femininity of the entity it invades, but at the same time, it plants a ‘seed’ of masculinity—enables a future realization of manhood if only because the entity penetrated has necessarily been touched by a powerful vessel of masculinity. Such is the story of the protagonist and the Metal Fetishist. True to his cowboyish tendencies as a cyberpunk hero, the vengeful Fetishist reshapes, warps and sculpts the protagonist as if he were unexplored terrain, virgin soil. We are thus led to yet more conclusions. In the ideal cyberpunk scenario, women are removed from the reproductive process—only real men can make other real men. Necessarily, then, the feminine body is a raw, untrained and default condition, while the male form is something toward which human beings must work and strive. In the end it therefore becomes clear that Tetsuo is as much a tale about what it takes to achieve manhood as what it takes to achieve heroism in a cyberpunk fictional world.


Works Cited


  • Cavallaro, Dani (2001), Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson, London: Athlone.
  • Dyens, Ollivier (2001), Metal and Flesh: The Evolution of Man, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Goodwin, Craufurd and Alex Rogers (1997), “Cyberpunk and Chicago”, in Henderson, James P., The State of the History of Economics: Proceedings of the History of Economics Society (Perspectives on the History of Economic Thought), London: Routledge.
  • Huang, Tsung-Yi Michelle (2004), Walking Between Slums and Skyscrapers: Illusions of Open Space in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Shanghai, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University.
  • Michaud, Thomas (2008), “Cyberpunk Science Fiction as Political Philosophy”, in Hassler, Donald M.; Wilcox, Clyde, New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Park, Jane Chi Hyun (Sep.-Dec., 2005), “Stylistic Crossings: Cyberpunk Impulses in Anime”, World Literature Today, 79 (3/4), 60-63.
  • Stockton, Sharon (Winter, 1995), “‘The Self Regained’: Cyberpunk’s Retreat to the Imperium”, Contemporary Literature, 36 (4).
  • Tatsumi, Takayuki (2006), Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Verrone, William E. B. (2011), The Avant-Garde Feature Film: A Critical History, Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
  • Waskul, Dennis D. (2004), Net.SeXXX: Readings on Sex, Pornography and the Internet, New York: Peter Lang Publishing.