At the age of fourteen, Tsukamoto attempted to experiment his idea of visionary cinema with a 8mm camera, which he gradually completed throughout his long career. His first studies of oil painting and his experience in advertising were of great help to him, as well as the possibility to cultivate his creative freedom in the small theater group Kaiju Gekijo (Theater of the Sea Monsters) which he founded in 1985, inspired by various underground movements such as the one of Shuji Terayama.
After some interesting short films, including The Phantom of Regular Size (Futsu saizu no kaijin, 1986) and The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy Denchu Kozo no boken, 1987, Grand Prix at the Pia Film Festival in Tokyo), in 1989 he shot his first 16mm film, Tetsuo (id.), thanks to which he obtained the Grand Prix at the Fantafestival in Rome in the same year and the immediate popularity among the fans of the science-fiction genre. Soon after he had the opportunity to make a 35 mm film for the major Shochiku, with a decent budget and important performers, a project from which the horror fable Hiruko – The Goblin (Hiruko – Yokai hanta, 1991) was born, but the director soon returned to his independent production with Tetsuo II – Body Hammer (id., 1992), Tokyo Fist (id., 1995), Bullet Ballet (id., 1998, the film thanks to which he was able to expand the formula of the struggle between man and habitat to include the one of different generations of “mutants”). At this point of his career he had gathered a huge international audience, and the major Toho Sedic offered him the opportunity to make an important film in terms of budget, Gemini (Soseiji, 1999, from the short story by Edogawa Ranpo), his first costume film.
Although less evident in his film Hiruko, Tsukamoto’s early works stem from and develop around the idea that human being live in a concrete and metal urban context, which extends beyond measure to the point of engulfing space and human flesh, until only the brain of humans remains. It is up to us, therefore, to regain possession of our matter by struggling with the inorganic substance that is suffocating us (the Tokyo Fist theme), breaking the environmental excesses and revealing the blood we are made of, so as to redefine the physicality of our bodies. His cinema is therefore visually very strong and he often draws from the imaginative power of the manga, whose influence Tsukamoto recognizes (especially from the anime Gamera and Ultra Q): with very agile camera movements, he represents the flesh while it merges with the metal (Tetsuo and Tetsuo II), stages apocalyptic and cyberpunk devastations and abnormal streams of blood, piercings, violence on the body in order to define it. Geometric and metallic urban representations (best viewed from the white, black and gray tones of Tetsuo and Bullet Ballet), tirelessly recall the idea that the possibility of losing one’s life exists even in a society like the Japanese one that – as the author claims – considers itself invulnerable. Fast and violent scenes characterize his films, shot with the extreme freedom of camera movements thanks to which Tsukamoto cleverly calibrates the mutation of the bodies. His almost “physiological” search for the human being continues with the film A snake of June (Rokugatsu no hebi, 2002), winner of the Special Jury Prize in the Countercurrent section of the Venice Film Festival. In Japan the distribution of the film was also accompanied by the publication of the novel by the same title written by the director himself, which is currently being translated and will soon published in Italy by Marsilio Editore.
The flesh and the mind — the two equally fragile components of the human being — are also at the basis of the research of the leading character in Vital (id. 2004), of the “caged” character of the medium-length film Haze (2005) and of the nightmare investigator of two episodes entitled Night Detective (Akumu tantei, respectively of 2006 and 2008), and in the third episode of the trilogy dedicated to Tetsuo, that is Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009, in competition in Venice).
Tsukamoto’s proves to be a politically engaged director, who claims the right to exist in a dynamic of commercialization of individuals. The turning point from physical to mental metamorphosis is further emphasized in his work Kotoko (2011, Best Film in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival), in which Tsukamoto extends the metaphor of the city also to a wider and limitless world. However, the idea that the human being is reduced to an object through the sublimation of his life drive is never lost: his characters just have to react with acts of strong violence to give life to vital emotions, and finally, among the many, the sacrifice of those who have produced such cry gives life to a powerful echo.
The director’s last two films, both competing in the main Venetian event, continue his denunciation of the iniquity of the war: Fires on the plain (Nobi, 2014), an adaptation of the homonymous novel by Ooka Shohei, offers a cruel cross-section of war, while the more recent Killing (Zan, 2018), through the portrait of a “pacifist samurai”, reveals its madness.