Touching and Imagining: The early films of Shinya Tsukamoto and Shozin Fukui.

Repression is not only a product of totalitarian regimes, it is in the foundation of all civilizations (as we know from Sigmund Freud). It starts in earliest childhood: Don’t touch it, phoo, you’ll get dirty, don’t lick your fingers, it’ll make you sick, go and wash yourself, what have you been sticking your fingers into, don’t pick your nose, don’t walk in the mud, let go of it now… [Jan Švankmajer, Touching and Imagining, p.2]

Left and Middle:  Tetsuo: Iron Man  [1989] right:  Tetsuo II: Body Hammer  [1992]

Left and Middle: Tetsuo: Iron Man [1989] right: Tetsuo II: Body Hammer [1992]

I realise, looking back at the Cinema of Noise project,that many of the sound excerpts I've collected together come from European art house movies of the 1960s and 1970s. In both their original form to picture or as a series of reworked sound montages assembled in the studio, a lot of the audio material creates an overall impression of place and atmosphere. The sounds of a world, both physically present and subjectively experienced. Sounds felt within and beyond the frame of the camera; of the real and the imagined space.

Beyond recourse to the direct emotional effect of music, sound in film, in its very ambiguity, is perfectedly placed to perform such a role. Operating in the region at the edge of conscious perception, the use of sound effects and audio manipulation in the context of moving image helps create a 'cinema of atmosphere' (Kim Cascone) or ‘mood’, in the words of David Lynch.

I decided for this final instalment of the Cinema of Noise series to look beyond sound in this way as a tool for evoking atmosphere, place and psychology. Instead of existing in the background I wanted to explore film sound as something upfront, more present and exaggerated than conventional audiovisual film language might allow. Having already become interested in his ideas on Tactile Art and been enthralled by the hyper-real quality of his soundtracks created by Ivo Špalj (ee rare interview with the man here), initially I planned to do a short series on the films of Jan Švankmajer. In the end however I landed on the idea of exploring a small group of films from Japan that I feel deserve wider recognition.

The Cyperpunk Suite consists of sound excerpts drawn from 4 feature films and 1 short film, made between 1988 and 1996. Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: Iron Man [1989] is easily the most well-known work of the batch, having found wider recognition outside of Japan with horror and sci-if fans of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Tetsuo has been described as the classic cyberpunk movie, similar in its dystopian atmosphere and themes of metamorphosis and human mutation as the widely-celebrated anime classics Akira [1988] and the later feature Ghost in the Shell [1995]. What is less recognised is the work of Shozin Fukui, whose two major features from the 1990s - 964 Pinocchio [1991] and Rubber's Lover [1996] - together with extracts from his experimental 1988 short Caterpillar are represented here.

(Note: The go-to online resource hub for all things Japanese cinema, Midnight Eye published a great overview of Japanese cyberpunk movies in 2011. Though the site has since ceased activities, the article in question, written by Mark Player, can still be accessed here.)

Top row: Images from Fukui’s brilliantly hyper-active  964 Pinocchio  [1991] • Bottom row: Examples of the beautifully grainy black and white images of Fukui’s follow-up  Rubber’s Lover  [1996]

Top row: Images from Fukui’s brilliantly hyper-active 964 Pinocchio [1991] • Bottom row: Examples of the beautifully grainy black and white images of Fukui’s follow-up Rubber’s Lover [1996]

While the offscreen world and dark atmosphere of these films is certainly heightened through the soundtrack, what's most striking is the use of radically bold sound design ideas in conjunction with the director’s hyperactive visual style. Sound effects of aeroplanes, explosions, machines and abstract noise elements are welded with images to help punctuate picture cuts and rapdi-fire transition moments. This generates energy, intensifying the viewing experience.

The Tetsuo world is industrial, cold and metallic. The sounds of engines, drills, scraping, hissing steam, metal bending and breaking fill the air, punctuating moments of violence and mutation. Composer Chu Ishikawa’s awesome industrial score perfectly drives the action, propelling the narrative forward and unifying the moments of stop-frame animation with the live-action seuqences. Rubber’s Lover has a similar claustrophobic atmosphere as Tetsuo: Iron Man with both films playing out in a handful of interior spaces. Fukui’s earlier film however - 964 Pinocchio - unfolds across a variety of interior and exterior urban locations. Shooting both with and without authorised filmming permits, many of the film’s most memorable moments occur admist the curious onlooking crowds of the capital. Public annoucements, traffic, underground trains and pedestrian noise fill the stereo space, as Pinocchio and Himiko run through train stations, old buildings, alleyways and the open shopping districts of central Tokyo. 964 Pinocchio is a real trip.

Touch played a significant role even in my older films (for instance the emphasis on the detailed structure of close-up film objects) but since the 1980s […] I worked deliberately on evoking these neglected or hidden tactile feelings and tried to enrich the emotional arsenal of filmic expression. I became increasingly conscious that to revive the general impoverishment of sensibilities in our civilization the sense of touch can play an important part, as so far it has not been discredited in ‘artistic endeavours’. [Jan Švankmajer, Touching and Imagining, p.3]

Similar to Švankmajer's animations, all 4 feature films use studio-produced foley effects - footsteps, movement, object handling fx - pushed forward, creating a very tactile, corporeal quality to the unfolding action. These effects support the frantic picture edits; cutting into extreme close-ups of contorting faces, mutating body parts and decaying organic matter. The overall impression is hyper-realistic and grotesque, bordering on the cartoonish and yet remaining perfectly consistent with the bold audiovisual style of the films. Thse are visceral works, bombarding the senses with incessant sound (much screaming, shouting and groaning), industrial music and imaginative imagery.

A few final words on Shozin Fukui’s 1988 film Caterpillar; a 30-minute experimental short he made around the same time that he was working with Tsukamoto on the first Tetsuo movie. To encounter the sound-music-noise of this film, call it what you want, at full volume, is a pretty brutal yet utterly fascinating experience. A soundtrack of heavily distorted noise and effects of the director’s own making (Fukui was playing in bands before migrating to film). This is a truly intense and weirdly fun cinema of noise well worth checking out.

All material has been directly lifted from the original film soundtracks and edited together to form individual montages. Basic techniques - editing, layering and mixing have been performed on the material. No additional processing or sonic manipulation. Extracts from the following films:

- Tetsuo: Iron Man [1989] / Credits [IMDB] Dir: Shinya Tsukamoto / Sound: Unknown / Music: Chu Ishikawa
- Tetsuo II: Body Hammer [1992] / Credits [IMDB] Dir: Shinya Tsukamoto / Sound: Unknown / Music: Chu Ishikawa
- Caterpillar [1988] / Credits [IMDB] Dir: Shozin Fukui / Sound and Music: Shozin Fukui
- 964 Pinocchio [1991] / Credits [IMDB] Dir: Shozin Fukui / Sound: Unknown [Fukushima Studio?] / Music: Hiroyuki Nagashima
- Rubber's Lover [1996] / Credits [IMDB] Dir: Shozin Fukui / Sound: Akihiko Suzuki, Unknown [Fukushima Studio?] / Music: Tanizaki Tetora