Japanese Cyberpunk: for those familiar with the early-to-mid-nineties films
of Shinya Tsukamoto and Shozin Fukui, those two words have a very particular
connotation, promising an unflinching exploration of the darkest extremes of
technology and madness.
is a real-life term, certainly, but also a popular science fiction subgenre.
William Gibson’s 1983 novel NEUROMANCER marked the official
inception of cyberpunk, which continued through the eighties and nineties
with Gibson-esque novels like Bruce Sterling’s SCHISMATRIX and Neil
Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH, and flicks like JOHNNY MNEMONIC and THE MATRIX.
All were characterized by a hip, street-smart sensibility, gritty
futuristic locales and a vivid aura of high-tech romanticism.
For the Japanese, however, cyberpunk appears to mean something else
entirely. I’m thinking here
of several different but interrelated films by Tsukamoto, Fukui and others,
all hailing from the Japanese underground and all sharing a set of
distinctly cyberistic themes.
What distinguishes these films is their overpowering concentration on
aberrance and grotesquerie within sci fi frameworks.
Rather than the romantic techno-vistas of NEUROMANCER, Tsukamoto and
co. appear to have taken their inspiration from the outrageous punk-fuelled
cinema of Sogo Ishii (BURST CITY, CRAZY FAMILY) and the darkest elements of
ERASERHEAD, VIDEODROME and THE TERMINATOR.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s TETSUO:
THE IRON MAN kicked off the J-cyber genre in 1990.
It was Tsukamoto’s debut and remains his most resonant creation, a
whacked-out black and white cyber nightmare accomplished with feverish
imagination and a kinetic intensity that has yet to be surpassed.
It was made for peanuts, but Tsukamoto threw every conceivable
low-rent special effect into the mix regardless of whether his paltry budget
could support it or not.
film involves a dude who finds himself transforming into a mutant cyborg:
pipes sprout from his body, he hears scraping metallic sounds emit from his
girlfriend, and, most distressing of all, his cock turns into a giant
buzzing prosthesis. There’s
also a mutant cat and another machine guy who shows up to do battle with the
protagonist in the mind-rattling climax.
TETSUO has been slavishly imitated over the years (as many of the
subsequent films on this list prove), but its orgiastic explosion of
Giger-esque imagery remains unique.
naturally returned with the bigger budgeted TETSUO
2: BODY HAMMER in 1991. It’s
generally dismissed by critics, but I quite like it.
Despite its flaws, TETSUO 2 is everything we’ve come to expect from
Tsukamoto: violent, hallucinogenic and fast!
a dehumanizing modern metropolis (Tokyo…where
else?), a guy finds himself afflicted with strange dreams and visions.
When a gang of scumbags kidnap his child, the dude finds the visions
becoming reality as his body begins sprouting weird metallic growths.
There’s also a man living under the city who leads a bunch of
cyborgs--although just where he
leads them I’m not entirely sure. As
in part one, the “story” is largely incoherent, but that really
doesn’t matter. It’s enough to simply bask in the non-stop barrage of
bloody cyberistic visuals.
next film was the even more amazing TOKYO
FIST (KOKYO FISUTO), which applied many of themes of the TETSUO flicks
to a non-sci fi related tale of body building and unchecked aggression.
Another Tsukamoto production worth mentioning is 2003’s A
SNAKE OF JUNE (ROKUGATSU NO HEBI), wherein perverse eroticism is
utilized in place of TETSUO’S robotic transformations.
we’ll have to take a look back at a much earlier, pre-TETSUO Tsukamoto
effort, THE ADVENTURES OF ELECTRIC ROD BOY (DENCHU KOZO NO BOKEN), which was padded with newly shot footage and
released in 1995. The central
character of this 40-minute swirl is a man with a rod growing out of his
back who finds himself battling a mad scientist and an army of punk vampires
intent on taking over the world. He
later meets up with another “rod boy” who fills him in on his mission:
to save the world and then go forward in time to find his replacement.
It climaxes in an astonishing special effects rumble that remains
unique in the annals of cult cinema. No,
none of it makes much sense, and Tsukamoto’s budgetary deficiencies were
evidently far more problematic than in any of his other films, but for sheer
mind-bending insanity ELECTRIC ROD BOY nearly equals TETSUO.
that I’ll leave Tsukamoto behind and take an even farther look back, into
the year 1986. It was then that
the deeply trippy DEATH POWDER (DESU PAWUDA) was released, four years before TETSUO officially set
the J-cyber perimeters.
POWDER is very much in that tradition, with an android woman known as
Guernica laid out in a refuse-littered warehouse, and three mercenaries who
try to steal her. They end up
inhaling a strange mist emitted by Guernica, which causes them to enter a
hallucinatory world ruled by malevolent humanoid creatures identified by the
credits as “Scar People”--yet back in the here-and-now the bodies of the
mercenaries are mutating into a giant slimy mass.
my interpretation, at least. You
may feel differently about the events of this profoundly asynchronous
collection of sights and sounds that’s quite irritating in some spots and
in others plain dull. But it
emits a certain crazed fascination, like an out-of-control acid trip, and
contains many startling Tsukamoto-worthy sights: an exploding head,
metamorphosing bodies and the amazing creature that shows up near the end.
Keep in mind that this was all achieved on a shoestring budget and
shot on video by punk rocker-turned-experimental filmmaker Shigeru Izumiysa,
proving that inspiration and creativity will always be the real
The trend was continued in 1992 with the even-crazier PINNOCHIO 964. It
clearly owes something to TETSUO, and no wonder, as its director Shozin
Fukui was a production assistant on that project.
But Fukui more than came into his own with PINNOCHIO 964, surely one
of the greatest Japanese cult films of the nineties.
964 is a sex android who’s lobotomized and loosed on the streets of Tokyo.
He takes up with a nutty street chick who promptly goes mad; she
tortures Pinnochio and chains him up just as Pinnochio’s creators launch a
hunt for him. This leads to an
unspeakably over-the-top nightmare of blood, slime and sheer insanity.
Taken as a whole, the film is an astonishingly assured cavalcade of
psychotic mayhem. Fukui’s
unhinged cinematics--unfettered handheld camerawork, a wildly unpredictable
editing scheme, hysterical acting--perfectly compliment the schizophrenic
narrative. That’s in addition
to a veritable smorgasbord of grue, with copious bodily fluids and possibly
the most prolonged vomiting sequence ever.
what ultimately makes the film distinctive is Fukui’s filmmaking
brilliance. He creates images
as memorable and disturbing as those of Tsukamoto, Andrzej Zulawski and
David Lynch, all of whom PINNOCHIO 964 recalls…yet there’s ultimately
nothing else like it.
black and white RUBBER’S LOVER
was Fukui’s similarly themed 1997 follow-up, and it’s a bit of a let
down--but not an unworthy movie! It
concerns an experiment into psychic potential that takes place in a
forbidding warehouse. There
several nutcase scientists inject people with the drug ether and bombard
them with loud noises. But when
the experimenters unwisely kidnap an attractive secretary their subjects go
nuts, unleashing a blast of gory mayhem: we see a woman graphically
disemboweled, a guy puke his guts out and a lesbian literally devour her
all this RUBBER’S LOVER, unlike its predecessor, doesn’t really stand
out amidst the other films described herein.
Again, though, that doesn’t mean it’s bad: it adequately
showcases its creator’s gift for extreme cinema, and has an authentically
years 1990-95, when Tsukamoto and Fukui made their signature films, can be
viewed as the golden age of the J-cyber tradition.
(Some characterize the 1993 Toho production ROBOKILL BENEATH DISCO
CLUB LAYLA, 1996’s ORGAN, from TETSUO co-star Kei Fujiwara, and the 1997
FULL METAL YAKUZA as belonging to the cycle, but I don’t!)
That was before the “J-horror” craze overtook Japanese genre
cinema with a slew of formulaic horror movies patterned after the
mega-successful RINGU (1996). But
you can’t keep a good genre down for long.
take a look at ELECTRIC DRAGON 80.000v
from 2000, a 55-minute minute blast
of unfettered cinemadness from cult legend Sogo Ishii.
It appears to have been inspired by the work of Tsukamoto and Fukui,
but Ishii was in fact making films long before them, and can be seen as one
of the primary influences on the J-cyber cycle.
in luminous black and white, ELECTRIC DRAGON 80.000v is about a guy who as a
child was zapped with electricity, which somehow granted him supernatural
powers. As an adult he
undergoes a number of painful tests by demented researchers before meeting
up with another guy possessing similar powers, and the two inevitably square
off in an electricity-powered showdown.
With its unrestrained camerawork and frequent video game inspired
effects, this is fun stuff, even if it ultimately brings little to the table
that Tsukamoto didn’t already.
And with that, this list comes to an end, but definitely not the
genre overall. The influence of
TETSUO, PINOCCHIO 964 et al continues, and has spread outside Japan: witness
the Korean KILLING MACHINE (DAEHEKNO-YESEO
MAECHOON-HADAKA TOMAKSALHAE DANGHAN YEOGOSAENG AJIK DAEHAKNO-YE ISSDA)
from 2000 and the American SIXTEEN TONGUES from 2005, two deranged exercises
in cyberpunk psychosis that bear the unmistakable J-cyber stamp.
This particular subgenre hasn’t seen its last days, and (I’m
hoping) has a way to go yet. Here’s to iron men, rod boys, scar people and electric
dragons--long may they vomit, bleed, disgust and delight!