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Vital by Shinya Tsukamoto (Review)

Not necessarily for the squeamish, but a surprisingly haunting treatise on death and memory.
Vital - Shinya Tsukamoto

Vital might be the first Shinya Tsukamoto film that I’ve seen in its entirety, but I have seen and read enough about some of his other films to know that a few terms can accurately be applied to Tsukamoto’s films. Terms ranging from “transgressive” to “taboo shattering,” “disturbing” to “harrowing.”

This is, after all, a guy whose first major film, Tetsuo: The Ironman, featured a mild-mannered office worker slowly turning into a monstrosity of metal and wires complete with a drill-like penis, and whose previous film, A Snake Of June, centered around a woman blackmailed into performing various sexual acts, including masturbating in public.

So I suppose, from the perspective, that it sort of makes sense that Vital is, at least on the surface, about an amnesiac who begins regaining his memories while dissecting his girlfriend’s cadaver. However, to just leave it at that is far too simplistic, and far to dismissive of this film, which, while quite disturbing, is also quite haunting and surprisingly tender and beautiful at times.

The always-stellar Tadanobu Asano (Last Life In The Universe) is Hiroshi, a young man who has just survived a terrible car accident. However, when he wakes up from a coma, he has no memory of the wreck, his life, anything.

Only after discovering some medical textbooks does he begin to sense some purpose to his life, some sort of calling. He enrolls in medical school, much to the delight of his parents, and quickly becomes a star pupil. But he still remains a lonely cipher, brilliant in his studies but essentially empty, unable to recall anything else in his life and constantly living in dread of the alien world around him.

That is, until his class gets to the dissection portion of their studies. Now, it’s here where one might expect, based on Tsukamoto’s previous works, that the film would take a turn towards more exploitative territory. The exact opposite is the case (and those with weak stomachs can rest easy, the film is far from gory — you’ll see more gore in an episode of whatever CSI rip-off is on tonight). Hiroshi and his classmates begin dissecting the body of a young woman, and soon, Hiroshi finds himself in strange visions with a woman he doesn’t know. At first, the visions seem to parallel the tempestuous relationship he’s begun with Ikumi, one of his classmates.

The visions keep getting stronger, stranger, and more sensual, and soon enough, he realizes that the girl in his visions is the same girl that’s on the table before him in class, a girl named Ryoko. Again, Tsukamoto could’ve taken the film into darker, more disturbing territories, but thankfully he doesn’t. Instead, he allows the film to become a surprisingly haunting treatise on death and memory.

There is a certain ickiness when you see Hiroshi tenderly caressing, say, the corpse’s tendons, but only a sicko would see that as anything other than a faltering attempt by Hiroshi to reconnect with a past — and a love — that’s been ripped away from him. As the film continues, the visions of Ryoko take on a subtly spiritual overtone, as if Ryoko’s very soul is attempting to use her former mortal coil to connect with her still-breathing lover one last time.

However, Tsukamoto never lets the darkness get too far away. A constant air of foreboding does permeate the film, which always leaves the viewer uncertain as to how things will ultimately play out, or if Hiroshi might be pushed over the edge by his growing obsession with Ryoko’s body. And this sense remains right up until the film’s final, striking scene.

Adding to this sense are Tsukamoto’s amazing visuals. Much like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind used low-tech trickery to communicate dreams more vividly than gratuitous CGI ever could, Vital uses vivid imagery to communicate the otherworldliness of Hiroshi’s visions without resorting to overt computer effects — and the result is far more interesting and affecting. The dreamlike encounters between Hiroshi and Ryoko become increasingly vibrant, eventually culminating in almost Eden-like imagery, which is verdant and lush. At times, the film veers into more surreal imagery, and at other times, to more abrasive, claustrophobic imagery that effectively communicates Hiroshi’s mental state.

Music and sound are also very important to the film, perhaps moreso than anything else I’ve seen recently. As a fan of the Cocteau Twins, I fell in love with the soundtrack, which often has a classic 4AD-esque sound to it, which adds a further contemplative note to Hiroshi’s dissections. However, jagged shards of noise and feedback occasionally shatter the film’s mood, again, I think, the keep Hiroshi’s fragile mental state in the viewer’s mind.

Vital is not without its weaknesses, and a lot of them stem, I think, from the film’s structure. Although the film’s story could actually lend itself well to outright melodrama once you get past the whole cadaver bit, the structure of the film prevents any melodrama from the building. For example, the visions don’t just slowly come on Hiroshi, daydream-like. Rather, they burst into his life, rendering him practically comatose right there in class as the other students continue working around him.

At times, this is appreciated, but at other times, it actually keeps the main characters from growing any, becoming sympathetic. There is only one subplot, which involves Ryoko’s still-grieving parents, where Tsukamoto does allow the melodrama a bit of free reign, and as a result, it contains much of the film’s true emotional heft.

When Hiroshi first visits Ryoko’s parents, they despise him, holding him responsible for her death. But they eventually realize that he is their only link to Ryoko. Through him and his memories they eventually become reacquainted with their estranged daughter. Hiroshi’s final conversation with Ryoko’s father is one of my favorite scenes in the movie, a scene underscored by great loss as well as understanding. (Pay close attention to Tsukamoto’s camerawork, which gradually adds to the scene’s underlying sadness in a beautiful and graceful manner.)

Unfortunately, other subplots, such as the machinations of Hiroshi’s parents, or Hiroshi’s relationship with Ikumi, feel shortened and shallow, not having been given much time to develop. As such, the film ultimately works as more of an arthouse, conceptual-type piece than as a drama right out, even though it’s probably more dramatic than any of Tsukamoto’s other films. But taken on those terms, Vital succeeds quite beautifully.

I’ve seen some longtime fans of Tsukamoto express some disdain for the film, calling it boring and whatnot. But for me, who admittedly has only a rough familiarity with the man, with both his talent and his penchant for more “extreme” subject matter, Vital strikes a nice balance between the dark and extreme elements in Tsukamoto’s films — leaving out the darkest bits while retaining just enough to keep the viewer on their toes — and elements that I found to be powerful and, if I were to be perfectly honest, quite beautiful and moving at times.

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