The main character is a Japanese salary man who is sort of the Japanese equivalent of the “everyman” character. One day, metal starts growing from his body for… Well, pretty much no reason at all. It’s really the same sort of Japanese surrealism as Kobo Abe writes, and drives home the same basic idea, that life is strange and unpredictable.
The movie was based on the idea of making a monster movie like Godzilla, but with a human sized beast. So the Salary Man, as he transforms more and more into a heaping hunk of metal, has to do battle with Tetsuo, who, also, has grown into a heap of metal. They have a showdown in a junkyard where both have developed the ability to absorb all of the metal around them through… Magnetism, or chemistry or something. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.
The movie really helped to define Japanese cyberpunk. There had been earlier efforts in the genre such as Burst City, but this one was the one that really defined the genre as being about industrialism and the Frankenstein-esque relations between man and machine. Where American cyberpunk tends to focus on the computer age, Japanese cyberpunk is more about antiquated machinery and post WWII fear.
The style of the movie is what really makes it special. It’s fast, it’s confusing, it looks like a nightmare with a stark black and white look. It really does feel more like a bad dream than it does like anything that could ever happen in real life.
Besides Eraserhead, the movie also draws a lot of inspiration from Cronenberg’s Videodrome, starring James Woods. It uses some of the same recurring images of flickering television sets and grotesque horror sights. So, a warning, if that movie made you squeamish, this one will, too.
Tsukamoto went on to create some of the greatest films ever to come from Japan, including Tokyo Fist, which is one of the greatest films ever made on the subject of the male ego. It’s about what happens when two men who are at odds with one another absolutely refuse to back down no matter what, and how far conflict can go when it’s not put in check.
Tsukamoto has also developed into an interesting actor, mainly taking small parts in films by Takashi Miike, who has a similarly strange approach to filmmaking. Tsukamoto’s career is definitely one to keep tabs on, as it’s clear that, two decades after his debut, he’s just getting started and still has plenty more surprises up his sleeves.