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How Legion Lifts From Tetsuo: The Iron Man – Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh


Adi Tantimedh writes,

Finished my second novel, so now I can go back to writing about pop culture.

I've been having a perfectly good time watching FX's LEGION, the show based on a character from the X-Men, specifically one created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz during their run on The New Mutants back in the 1980s. It draws on storylines from X-Men comics in the 80s, the 90s and Si Spurrier's recent book Legion which gave the David Haller character his own trippy solo series.

The show's broadly existential story about a mentally-ill hero trying to find his sanity, figure out reality and discover his identity and place in the world uses a trippy, retro-pop look that recalls trippy shows like The Prisoner and Twin Peaks, and uses different cinematic techniques and tricks to keep the viewer on edge, not knowing what's going to happen next or if it any of it is real or inside the hero's head. It's all great fun, even if sometimes the story feels like it's running in place. But I never felt it was as original as a lot of critics were raving about. I had a nagging feeling that I had seen this all before.

Then it dawned on me: much of the trippy style of Legion has been lifted from Shinya Tsukamoto's 1989 indie Japanese cyberpunk-horror movie Tetsuo, or as the West retitled it, Tetsuo: The Iron Man. ("Tetsuo" already means "iron man" in Japanese, so the Western title means "Iron Man: The Iron Man, but whatever.)


Just compare a trailer of Legion with the trailer of Tetsuo.


Tetsuo was a no-budget 16MM black-and-white indie movie written, produced, directed by and starring Shinya Tsukamoto back in 1989 when Cyberpunk as a Science Fiction genre was getting big, especially in Japan. It was a nightmarish fever-dream about a metal fetishist who sticks pieces of metal into his body and gets hit by a car. The hapless salaryman who hit him becomes infected, possibly as a manifestation of his guilt and shame, and starts to grow grotesque metal parts from his body, including his penis becoming a giant drill. The latter does not exactly go down well with his girlfriend (pun dreadfully intended), and the metal fetishist comes back, seemingly from the dead, to plague the salaryman as his transformation continues until the two of them merge together in a kind of apocalyptic sexual merging. Of course it's apocalyptic. Every Japanese science fiction and horror film is apocalyptic. It wouldn't be Japanese if it wasn't apocalyptic. Tsukamoto played the metal fetishist, by the way.


Tetsuo was very much a zeitgeist movie. It was filled with paranoia, Cronenberg-style body horror, sexual anxiety, urban alienation, and anticipated the coming trend of body-piercings and metal implants that came in the 1990s and 2000s. It was a huge cult movie in the West in the late 1980s and 1990s where it blew a lot of minds and has been in the ether for a long time ever since. Its techniques – stop-motion animation, elliptical and quick edits to create a paranoid, trippy atmosphere, stylized framing – were lifted again and again in various music videos and movies. You could argue that it might have been influenced by David Lynch's Eraserhead, but Shinya Tsukamoto put his own spin and obsessions into it.


Tetsuo established his reputation as an original and unpredictable filmmaker with a strong preoccupation with themes of obsession and fetishism, a triple-threat who wrote, directed and acted. He went on to make two more Tetsuo movies: Tetsuo: Body Hammer and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, the latter as recent as 2010, a kind of remake/commentary on the first movie, this time starring an American lead as the latest traumatized victim to transform into a human-metal hybrid. Tsukamoto also made a whole bunch of horror and genre movies such as Haruko the Goblin, Tokyo Fist (about boxing and body transformation), Bullet Ballet (about guns, fetishism and power fantasies, of course), A Snake of June (about sexual obsession and coercion), Vital (a creepy but surprisingly poignant tale of an amnesiac medical student who comes to realise the body he's conducting an autopsy on is his dead girlfriend's, and the process because his way of coming to terms with her death and understanding her), Nightmare Detective (about a psychic who helps people by entering their dreams) and even a remake of Kon ichikawa's classic war movie Fires on the Plain. Tsukamoto had gone from playing creepy, obsessive maniacs earlier in his career, including the manipulative hypnotist in Takashi Miike's manga adaptation Ichi the Killer to more mainstream, respectable roles recently like the scientist who figures out the monster's secret in the recent Shin Godzilla, and a major supporting role in Martin Scorsese's The Silence. Scorsese even paid tribute to Tsukamoto when they met, expressing admiration for his movies, which Scorsese had followed over the years, to the surprise of the movie's Hollywood publicist, who didn't know Tsukamoto from just another Japanese dude who was in their movie. If you love movies that take you to someplace you've never been, you want to see Shinya Tsukamoto's movies.

Hollywood filmmaking (and filmmaking everywhere) has always had a magpie dynamic in the way it lifts, copies, and adopts new techniques and tricks from foreign movies, and Legion is just the latest example. I'm not calling this plagiarism, plagiarism is stealing stories, not techniques. I don't think you can copyright or trademark a specific way of filming a scene, of editing a scene, or lighting it, or colouring it, or how the actors pitch their performances.  In Art, style and techniques are copied and repeated by others all the time. It's interesting for anyone studying filmmaking to spot the stylistic similarities and differences between Legion and Tetsuo.

LEGION -- "Chapter 1" (Airs Wednesday, February 8, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Dan Stevens as David Haller, Aubrey Plaza as Lenny "Cornflakes" Busker. CR: Chris Large/FX


Where the pace of Tetsuo is feverish and manic, Legion is austere and somewhat detached. Tsukamoto wanted to plunge the viewer into an inescapable nightmare and trap them there, and Noah Hawley tempers that in Legion with a sense of hipster-ish jokiness, throwing in bright colours, wisecracks and retro pop songs from the Sixties and Seventies. Legion also lacks the psychosexual obsession, the fear of sex and penetration that Tetsuo was covered in. The closest to a weird sexual vibe in Legion is in Aubrey Plaza's increasingly creepy and unhinged performance. Even her eye make-up and increasingly crazy hair could be compared to the crazed woman who attacks the salaryman in Tetsuo, only not quite as maniacal and looking less, well, horribly messed up. The sixth and seventh episodes of Legion had a lot of similarities in the ways closer-ups were framed and cut to wider shots to keep the audience off-balance as in Tetsuo, especially in the hallucinatory sequences where all hell breaks loose and the characters are trapped between the real and the unreal inside David Haller's head. Legion also uses techniques and conventions like silent movies and animated cartoons to keep up the feeling of disorientation. Legion, like Tetsuo, has moments of body horror, the warping and maiming of bodies that's all Tetsuo. Of course, Legion has the benefit of a huge design, make-up and Special Effects team than Tetsuo ever did. Hell, a single episode of Legion probably has a higher budget than all three Tetsuo movies combined.

I'm not knocking it. It's fun to contrast and compare and argue whether Legion has been lifting from Tetsuo. It gives me an opportunity to think about and talk about Shinya Tsukamoto before we forget what a huge impact he had on movies and filmmaking, and remind us that movies are more than just Hollywood. It also has me thinking about how Legion might fit the current state of the superhero genre, which might be entering its decadent phase in movies and television. By that, I mean that writers and directors are starting to poke away at the basic structures of the genre to find cracks and odd corners to create superhero shows and movies that are less conventional, like Deadpool, Logan, The Legend of Master Legend and even Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But that's for another, long column, perhaps for next week.

Manic Panic at

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

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Bill WattersAbout Bill Watters

Games programmer by day, geek culture and fandom writer by night. You'll find me writing most often about tv and movies with a healthy side dose of the goings-on around the convention and fandom scene.
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