Shinya Tsukamoto, more than a director, more than a scriptwriter, more than an actor, more like an artist; with a vast career in filmmaking, as well as acting, Shinya Tsukamoto is one of the most renowned names of the contemporary Japanese cinema. A unique and interesting figure, Tsukamoto maintained throughout his career his status as an independent filmmaker, avoiding to pledge his name to any of the big Nippon film companies, although his own company Keijyu Theatre associated with Third Window Films for digitalizing his earlier works captured on film.
Born on 1st of January 1960, Shinya Tsukamoto discovered his passion for films at the age of 14 when his father brought home a Super 8 camera. The possibilities of translating reality as well as depicting one’s fantasies, believes and inner world through the dynamic filmic medium, fascinated young Tsukamoto who instilled even his early amateur projects with a personal style which later became his trademark. He experienced theatre as well, by starting an independent theatre group, and worked for a television advertising company in the few years when he wasn’t making films.
Working independently, without outer founding, was and still is, for Tsukamoto and his usually limited crew a whole adventure, a difficult but exciting process of getting the best out of little resources. However, this approach of making films has its perks. Freedom; the exhilarating sense of freedom, the possibility of following one’s instincts, and impulses in an uncensored expression of self, is a privilege which Tsukamoto always indulged himself, and actually not only a privilege, but more a creed which moulded his cinematographic works. Working with young and inexperienced volunteers, when the budget did not permit to pay true professionals, reinforced Tsukamoto’s pathos from his earlier days.
Shinya Tsukamoto is definitely what one would call a film auteur. From his debut underground, cyberpunk, sci-fi, horror, cult film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Tsukamoto worked on every aspect of its films from directing to acting, to editing, to designing the costumes, building the settings and drawing the storyboard, his films are his own in the most denotative sense of the word. Filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto embraced all of these roles which for him are more than intertwined with the same thrills every time. Followed by 2 sequels Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo 3: Bullet Man (2009), Tetsuo, might be the most resonant name from Tsukamoto’s cinematography. Based in an industrialising Tokyo, the director’s first 16mm film, conceived when the underground cyberpunk genre was shyly starting to flourish is an industrial horror, a nightmarish trip of guilt, lust, desperation, alienation, and acceptance. The relation between human and machine has been a topic of interest ever since Fritz Lang brought to the screen his mechanical Maria in the silent Metropolis (1927), but Tsukamoto’s approach of this idea was completely new. He does not create a robot. He does not show in his film an animated silhouette of metal made by some queer scientist, not even by far. Tsukamoto brings metal and human flesh together into an agonising hybrid of warm blood and screws, pulsating organs and hard steel, soft skin and iron, who returns to its primary instincts and urges while turning into the Iron Man. Often linked with David Lynch’s industrial nightmare, Eraserhead (1977), and David Cronenberg’s filmed metamorphose, The Fly (1986), Tetsuo: The Iron Man’s pace is much faster than the one in Eraserhead, which leaves the viewer with a feeling of not catching up with the film. Tsukamoto also avoids the Kafkaesque metamorphose of human into another breathing creature, while still maintaining the absurdity specific to Kafka.
The obsession of industrialisation, the fear of the city dehumanising its residents followed Tsukamoto ever since Tetsuo until his 2004 film Vital. Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet, the other 2 Tetsuo, all explore the effects of the urban environment, of the concrete blocks, of the skyscrapers, of the reflecting windows, of the cars, the factories, the computers, the routine of the hours spent in an enclosed office, of the underground train, and cemented alleys on the humanity of the metropolis’s inhabitants, and their romantic relationships. Tsukamoto is a master of alienation and rediscovery through a primordial violence. The city oppresses one’s most human, flesh desires, one’s sexuality, one’s rage, one’s love, and Tsukamoto’s films capture the struggle of being the only breathing organism between cemented walls. The violence in his films does not have a negative connotation, is a cry of desperation, a test of humanity, when the characters harm themselves they do not do it to die, but to feel alive; the proximity of death just makes them feel more alive.
This era of cinematographic creation had yet an end, and that end started with A Snake of June (2002), a project which haunted the director even before the first Tetsuo, and was marked by Vital (2004). Industrial elements specific to Tsukamoto can still be found in A Snake of June, but these are in contrast with natural and organic elements (rain, plants, snails) which enhance the whole sexual feeling of the film. A Snake of June was meant to be an erotic film, and while the erotic sense is conveyed even through the blue tint of the images, the film is also a piece on self-discovery, on self-acceptance through the embrace of the flesh, and the consciousness of death. Vital is also a route of death, love, eroticism, pain where the natural, the organic element is the human body itself as a counterpoint of the whole universe. Tetsuo 3 is a reminiscence of his previous era. Made for an American public, the film which was initially asked by Quentin Tarantino, aimed for a bigger public, and is his first English film.
Tsukamoto eventually changed to digital film, change which had a certain influence on his style. Kotoko (2012) is at a first sight nothing like his previous films. The subject is so utterly different, a psychologically disturbed woman’s struggle with her statute of being a mother might trick the viewer, but the violence as a proof of life, the contrasts, the cracks in the narrative, the nightmarish visions are all there. It is visually different, sound wise as well, but it revives the idea of dance and music as the perfect state of the human, first expressed in Vital, and it has the same acute intensity of any other Tsukamoto films. Maybe even more, as this film is of a special importance for the director due to his relationship with Cocco, the Japanese singer who played and shaped the main character.
His last film, Fires on the Plain (2014), also holds a particular meaning to Shinya Tsukamoto. Being an adaptation of the book with same title by Shohei Ooka (1951), Tsukamoto was deeply impressed by the tragic war novel, and pursuit his own research in regards to the Second World War, by talking with war veterans and traveling to the Philippines jungle to see with his own eyes the sites were the action of the book was taking place. It is a tragic, violent, grotesque story of war. Set in the wild and heavenly natural background of the Philippines, the film follows its protagonist descending into despair and madness, running from an unseen enemy and resorting to inhumanly deeds for survival. It might not be a beautiful film, but it is true and touching, like most of Tsukamoto’s films. War is not beautiful, it destroys with no purpose the very thing which makes humans humans, it strips people of their hopes, of their smiles, of their beauty turning them into cruel beasts. Tsukamoto wanted to represent the war, the alienation, the anxiety, the fear, the fury, and rage, the despair and the way the experience of war does not disappear when the event itself ends but haunts its protagonists forever like a suffocating shadow of memories, and he succeeded majestically. The film came at a certain point in Japan when the perception of war was changing, a moment which Shinya Tsukamoto felt was vital for the existence of his film.
Tsukamoto acted in the main role of Fires on the Plain, more out of financial necessity, but his career as an actor is also well known, especially after the last film in which he starred, Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). Scorsese being one of his favourite directors, among Akira Kurosawa, Ridley Scott, Shohei Inamura, Tsukamoto put his soul into his role, giving an exquisite performance, as he does in his own films, where the intensity of his characters pierces the screen.
After this short incursion in what is an impressive career of an artist, I can only end by stating that Shinya Tsukamoto’s films are not just cinematographic images unwinding on a screen, but experiences. With their bizarre imagery, the stop-motion frames, the expressionist and surreal touch, the vague narrative, the power of the actors’ performances, the contrasts between calm and violent, organic and artificial, the masterful soundtracks, Tsukamoto’s films are pieces of art, made not only to be watched but to be felt and remembered, not a storyline, but an emotion.