‘Tetsuo II: Body Hammer’ – Cyberpunk Body Horror Classic Spawned a Wild Sequel 30 Years Ago

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) isn’t so much a follow-up to his monochromatic frenzy of an original as it is a new approach to the same themes he explored in the first go around. 1989’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is an industrial nightmare – a scouring pad to the grey matter. Body Hammer still retains Tsukamoto’s feverish energy he unleashed in the original film, but it’s in color this time – mostly grim greys and blues with dashes of vibrant orange, but color all the same.

Tomorowo Taguchi once again plays the titular role, this time inhabiting protagonist Taniguchi Tomoo. Taniguch is a mild mannered family man who just so happens to not remember his childhood before the age of 8, when he was adopted. Trying to recap the plot almost seems perfunctory; it’s not the plot we come to a Tetsuo film for, but the chaotic energy of Tsukamoto’s filmmaking. With that said, there is more of a traditional narrative through line in Body Hammer compared to its predecessor.

After Taniguchi’s son, Minori, is kidnapped by a gang of skinheads and Taniguchi is injected by something mysterious, he finds that in his rage and fear he can turn his body into a walking gun. His arm morphs into a canon and a multitude of gun barrels emerge from his chest – which he uses to riddle his enemies into a pulp.

Like the first film, the premise of Body Hammer is inherently absurd and the abrasive filmmaking style can feel like Tsukamoto screaming in your face for 80 minutes while Ministry blasts in the background, but that doesn’t make Body Hammer all punk rock style and no substance. Far from it. Much like its predecessor, Body Hammer isn’t concerned with making sure you’re on its wavelength. It just does its own thing and expects you to keep up.

Underneath the hectic energy, Body Hammer has a lot to say about the darkness of the human heart and the oppressive dread of the modern industrial world. Taniguchi’s powers are at first framed in a traditional action film lens. The hero was wronged, he gets powers, and we want to see him mess up the bad guys real good. As Body Hammer progresses, however, the familiar action film conceits warp into something far more tragic and perverse. As Taniguchi combats the skinhead gang who possess the same powers he does, you quickly realize the traditional narrative trappings of a hero’s rise to power and actualization are in reality latent childhood trauma finally allowed an outlet of escape. As his rage grows, as his memories emerge and revelations rear their head, Taniguchi becomes far more machine than man.

His aforementioned missing childhood memories reveal that his biomechanical power set have been with him his whole life from the abuse and experimentation perpetuated by his father on himself and his brother. At about the midway point Body Hammer transforms from a chaotic quasi-action film into a story of two brothers – Taniguchi and Yatsu (the leader of the skinhead gang) reconciling their childhoods. The comfortable thematic blanket of good guys and bad guys is ripped away, and we’re given a final act that is a clanking cacophony of images and sounds. The editing becomes so erratic, the body transformations become so inhuman, it’s difficult to even discern just what the hell is going on at some points. But despite Tsukamoto’s refusal to play by the rules, Body Hammer never becomes truly incomprehensible. By the end of the film, it actually reaches a certain profound sense of bittersweet triumph.

Tsukamoto is known for his explorations of the hell that is the modern industrial landscape. The Japan of Body Hammer is steely and alienating. The slate blue-gray, skyscrapers seem to take on an almost antagonistic presence as Tsukamoto’s editing constantly interjects them into the film. The camera swoops, dips, dives, twists, turns, and jitters from scene to scene. The relationship between man and metal in Body Hammer has a larger thematic scope to it than The Iron Man. The corruption and seduction of the steel, the rust, the gears, and the girders is generational. It’s in that subliminal space that Tetsuo II: Body Hammer finds its power.

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