Not Forgotten: Chu Ishikawa – Tetsuo: Complete Box

Right at the end of 2017 came the news that Japanese industrial composer Chu Ishikawa had died aged 51. I wouldn’t want to attempt any kind of obituary – I’m no expert. But he was responsible for what is my very favourite film soundtrack – something that it took me years to track down. So if you’d be kind enough to indulge me, this is the story of Finding Tetsuo, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Internet.

I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo : The Iron Man. It’s possible I saw the follow up, Bodyhammer, first. But it’s more than 25 years ago and it doesn’t really matter. The first film is a low budget, black and white mindfuck. The second film is in colour and has a modicum more plot. But they’re both essentially the same – dizzying, hallucinatory pieces of body horror. Hideously compelling comic book Cronenburg with man becoming metal in soul as well as body. And they’re both as much an auditory experience as a visual one. Chu Ishikawa’s score for both takes the place of clear story or plot in moving the film on. A thunderously kinetic mix of electronic atmospherics and clanging metallic industrial noise, it picks up the viewer and sweeps them through the assault of images.

I’d dipped into industrial music, but it never really felt industrial or powerful enough. THIS was what I’d been expecting. So, even though I wasn’t sure there even was a soundtrack to be found, it joined the list of albums I’d search high and low to get. Being pre-internet (well, for most of us) at first such searches mainly consisted of wandering into record fairs and shops, not least the pretty comprehensive HMV on Oxford St (now disappeared), to see if there was anything there. There wasn’t. (Incidentally, this is how I’m aware of the film composer Mark Isham. His stuff was always there in the soundtracks section. Ishikawa’s never was. As my mum always said, life’s not fair.) Over the years I picked up most of the list (ah, the joy of wandering into the Nottingham Selectadisc one day, flicking idly through the American Music Club section to find completely out of the blue that someone had decided to reissue their impossible to get Restless Stranger album!) until only Tetsuo remained.

Early internet searches had mainly thrown up a couple of dance compilations which carried the Tetsuo name. But there were hints there was a soundtrack CD out there. Nothing concrete though. Still nothing in the shops. Then, about 15 years ago, on Amazon, there it was. Not a full soundtrack, but a selection of stuff from the two films. Ordered in a heartbeat. But when it arrived, it didn’t quite deliver. The selection was of the poppier, more musical bits. No clanging drop forge power. As a stand alone it was, and remains, a great electronic record. But it didn’t have the terrifying propulsion of the actual soundtrack.

For some reason I kept plugging it into searches in the hope that a better version would emerge. Quite why, I don’t know. After all it wasn’t exactly mainstream stuff. One bash was probably what it was worth. And, about 10 years later, something going by the name of Tetsuo: Complete Box kept cropping up. The listings were never clear as to what was actually on it. I assumed it was the dance compilations repackaged. But it eventually emerged that I’d somehow missed the third film in the series – Bulletman. Still not exactly high budget, but a bit more so than the earlier two films, Indeed it was slightly more conventional, with an almost comprehensible plot, but still basically a remake and still totally barking. Again the real impetus came from an amazing Ishikawa score. But the main theme had been done by Nine Inch Nails (it’s OK, but it ain’t Ishikawa). Which indirectly, somehow, it seemed had led to Sony putting together a box set of all three scores. In Japan. So it was bloody expensive. Bits posted on youtube, suggested the industrial stuff was in. But it was too expensive. Until one day an idle tap into Amazon and suddenly for some reason a Japanese seller was flogging a new copy for £30, including delivery. EEEK.

So a few days later I came home to my last great unfound record sitting in the hall. The rest should write itself. Anticlimax after 20 years of looking. A sense of something ended. Emptiness at desires fulfilled. Regret that it wasn’t found half-hidden in a record store rack. That it was too easily obtained from a computer screen. The realisation it wasn’t all that anyway (Restless Stranger is far from AMC’s finest hour…).

Bollocks to that. It was bloody brilliant. A beautiful thing. A heavy, elegant silver and black box. Three elegant slip-cased CDs that come with their own gauze inlay, like a Tokyo salaryman’s mask to ward against pollution. A lovely booklet with film stills. It’s every bit the equal of my 4×10” version of Death to the Pixies. And as well as the electronic goodness (and some proto-Merzbow static washes) all the noise and mechanical energy is in the music. It’s got all the lumbering weight of early Swans, but it’s nimble and speeding and compelling too. Without the film to drive, its energy is focused on the listener. Whack it on a proper stereo and it’ll first plaster you against the wall, before sending you crashing through it in a pile of dust and rubble to run and run until either your feeble human muscles separate from the bone or your underpowered human heart explodes from the effort.

I’m pretty sure it’d never have come my way in another 20 years of record shop going. I’ve not given up on record shops (though I’ll always pine for one as good as Selectadisc). But, just for once, I was forced to raise a half human hand to the power of the internet. Rather than the ersatz pleasure of searching, I could actually hold and listen to that record I always wanted. And that’s got to be what it’s about.

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