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No Compromises

Tobias Obermeier
Tobias Obermeier

Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s unconventional low-budget films make him one of the luminaries of independent Japanese cinema. The 41st Munich International Film Festival is paying homage to the director and screening his latest film, SHADOW OF FIRE, as a German premiere.

No Compromises

Shin’ya Tsukamoto demonstrated early on in his career that he is more than just a classic auteur filmmaker. Not only did he direct his first feature film, TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, in 1989; he was also responsible for the screenplay, production, cinematography, and editing. He also appeared in front of the camera. This way of working, which he has continued in nearly all of his fifteen films to date, makes him a master of independent cinema.

The unbridled mixture of science fiction and horror in TETSUO: THE IRON MAN has long given the film cult status. Its radical form raised the bar for the still emerging cyberpunk genre. In grainy black-and-white images shot on 16 mm, the film tells the story of a salaryman who mutates into a mechanical being made of scrap metal. Responsible for this transformation is the “metal fetishist”, an obscure man who uses metal objects to mutilate his body.

Tsukamoto, who plays that man in the film, breaks with familiar narrative structures. Reality and fantasy merge in a nightmarish frenzy of metal. Grotesque stop-motion effects, rapid image sequences, jerking of the handheld camera, and a throbbing industrial soundtrack by his go-to musician Chu Ishikawa turn the film into a manic-aggressive horror trip that overwhelms all the senses. Tsukamoto’s uncompromising excess of violence leaves the body horror of David Cronenberg far behind.

Like his role model Cronenberg, Tsukamoto, too, emancipated himself from the radicalism of his early work over the years. While in the ’90s he was still shooting genre films that involved explicit depictions of violence, such as the Tetsuo sequel TETSUO II: BODY HAMMER (1992), TOKYO FIST (1995), and BULLET BALLET (1998), he struck a softer but no less outlandish tone in the early 2000s. A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002) is a sexually charged psychological thriller about voyeurism, exhibitionism, and frustrated desire set amid the dystopian dreariness of a big city.

Shinya Tsukamoto

Shin'ya Tsukamoto

Vital Online1

Vital

VITAL (2004), on the other hand, seems almost tender in its overall approach. This drama is about a young man who has not only lost his girlfriend, but also his memory, in a serious car accident. Fascinated by a textbook full of drawings of autopsies, he feels a compulsion to attend medical school. As he examines the corpse of a young woman during an autopsy course lasting several months, fragments of his memories slowly return. It turns out that the body is that of his deceased girlfriend. Operating on it becomes an obsessive form
of memory therapy. In pensive, sometimes dreamlike images, this film explores the
fragility of our lives and our memories.

In the years that followed, Tsukamoto remained true to his penchant for the morbid and offbeat. His two-part NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE (2006, 2008) addressed a wider audience for the first time. After the third Tetsuo installment, TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (2009), and the disturbing horror film KOTOKO (2011), about a hallucinating mother, he began his anti-war trilogy with FIRES ON THE PLAIN (2014), continuing it with KILLING (2018) and concluding it with SHADOW OF FIRE (2023).

Schadow Of Fire Online1

Shadow of Fire

Like so many of his films, the final installment celebrated its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and is extremely minimalist in its aesthetic. Here, Tsukamoto continues his reflections on the fragility of human bodies and life. World War II has just come to an end. In the destroyed premises of an inn, a widow who prostitutes herself out of necessity, an orphaned boy, and a soldier cross paths. All three are looking for comfort and affection in the midst of a Tokyo destroyed by firebombs. However, this makeshift family is unable to withstand the weight of its emotional wounds. The film focuses primarily on the boy, who faces this destruction with his whole life still ahead of him. The horror that Tsukamoto recounts here in strikingly warm images is also evident in the protagonists’ nightly whimpers — because in their minds, the war is far from over.

The Munich International Film Festival is delighted to welcome Shin’ya Tsukamoto, one of Japan’s most accomplished directors, to Munich and to pay homage to him. VITAL and TETSUO: THE IRON MAN will be screened in addition to his latest film, SHADOW OF FIRE. And don't miss the FilmTalk with this remarkable director.

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