Vital is one of the more recent offerings from Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto, who is perhaps best known on these shores for his cult Tetsuo films and more recently A Snake Of June. Vital once again delves into Tsukamoto's interest in all things corporeal, using this motif to explore our sense of self and the disconnection that we experience from our lives and the natural world around us.
Vital opens with young Hiroshi Takagi waking from a coma after a car crash that claimed the life of his girlfriend Ryoko. Although physically fine, Hiroshi is left with a shattered memory after the incident and becomes increasingly isolated from his family. We learn that he was a former medical student who had dropped out, but Hiroshi - perhaps spurred on by a lingering remnant of his memories - is compelled to sign up again, moving out to a dingy apartment overlooking the medical school much to the concern of his parents.
He is soon deep into his work, and garnering the attention of pretty classmate Ikumi all the while. But when it comes time to dissect a body as part of his course, Hiroshi's memories begin to stir - is this the body of his girlfriend? As the corpse's layers get stripped back, and his and Ikumi's relationship intensifies to the point of engaging in mutual asphyxiation, Hiroshi's own thoughts and feelings start to resurface. He begins to remember - or perhaps reinterpret - his similarly masochistic relationship with the ill-fated Ryoko, eventually being finally able to lay her memory and her body to rest.
Tsukamoto has come up with another typically strange film, and with all of the identikit Hollywood dross out there, it came as a shock to my system to view something so wilfully offbeat. I vaguely remember the black-and-white cyberpunk chic of Tetsuo: Iron Man, but I don't think I was quite prepared for Vital, which is a film every bit as disoriented as the amnesiac main character. From the very first shot of industrial towers belching out smoke set to screeching music, we get an idea of Tsukamoto's disdain for today's manufactured society, and then cut to Hiroshi coming around in hospital. The film's sense of time is distorted as Hiroshi begins to reacquaint himself with waking life, with little indication of how much time passes between scenes (although there are clues dropped here and there). The film gains some tiny semblance of linearity during the middle and latter stages, but again this is fragmented by what appear to be flashbacks to Hiroshi's relationship with Ryoko.
Soon it becomes apparent that what Hiroshi is 'remembering' is not in fact reality, leaving the viewer to question just what he is thinking of. Is it a manifestation of Hiroshi's subconscious, allowing him to address his feelings for Ryoko and subsequently re-establish his link with the world around him? Or is it a glimpse at an indulgent un-reality, where Hiroshi can live with Ryoko in blissful happiness? Who can say...
The 'flashback' passages help to highlight Tsukamoto's gorgeous 35mm cinematography (with the choice of film gauge apparently a rarity for the director whose independent sensibilities often restrict him to smaller, cheaper formats). These sequences gradually fill with vibrant colours and increasingly picturesque shots of natural environments, purposefully at odds with the cramped, long-lensed steel blues and greys of the city-bound lives of Hiroshi and Ikumi. Characters don't tend to inhabit the same shots in the city scenes, and often when they do they are out of focus and pushed to the very extremes of the frame, which concentrates the film's early feelings of dislocation. Cut to the increasingly colourful flashbacks and we get a feeling of warmth and closeness between Hiroshi and Ryoko that is simply not apparent with the colder relationship that Hiroshi and Ikumu share (much to her frustration). There are also some signature moments of Tsukamoto craziness, like the scene where Hiroshi appears to be remembering the car crash, which shows him in a hellish, blown-out, black-and-white haze.
Not content with lensing, writing, producing and directing the film, Tsukamoto also created the sound design, which has an unusual intensity that can unsettle at times. The squelching and scraping that accompanies the dissections is more upsetting than any depiction of the bodies themselves, and there are various cricks and crunches as the characters engage in their choking activities. It's not what I'd call subtle, but I would imagine that it's part of Tsukamoto's low-budget ethos, with the sound design taking as active a role as possible in stimulating the viewer, rather than being a quiet, passive waste of a mix.
Perhaps the biggest focus of Vital is the bodies that are dissected by Hiroshi and his fellow students. They are not treated with bloody, lingering close-ups, but with a more restrained eye (although there are a few grisly moments). In fact, we see more of the cadavers in the detailed da Vinci-style drawings of anatomy that Hiroshi works on, which befits the near-reverential disposition that he has when he's working on his girlfriend's corpse. And while Hiroshi is working on Ryoko, his interpretation of her in his mind becomes ever more free and natural. Her lifeless body on that cold table is contrasted with her expressive contemporary dance set against the beautiful backdrops of Okinawa.
Tsukamoto uses the remains in such a way as to directly confront our feelings of grief at the loss of a loved one, eschewing the traditional closed-doors approach to death by laying the body bare and having it explored to its core. And by having Hiroshi dissect Ryoko, the character is able to re-establish a connection with his lover after death, although Tsukamoto subscribes to this being a spiritual (though non-religious) experience rather than a material one. It's this connection that allows Hiroshi's healing to begin, although death is a constant feature in the film; a character close to Ikumi dies early on and Ryoko's mother also passes away, and the dangers of the main characters' asphyxiation fetish are of course obvious.
The cast is populated by a strong set of actors, with Japanese leading man du jour Tadanobu Asano giving a performance as Hiroshi that's virtually catatonic, which admittedly suits the character well. But until Hiroshi really begins to come alive later in the film he is just as isolated from the audience as he is from his surroundings, which makes it hard to empathise with the character. Kiki gives a similarly restrained performance as Ikumi, although she effectively conveys her depth of feeling at not being able to awaken Hiroshi from his subdued state. And the economy of expression from these two makes their asphyxiation scenes together that much more intense.
Professional ballet dancer Nami Tsukamoto (no relation to director Shinya) is very good as Ryoko, although her role demands more of a physical presence rather than sustained acting ability. With her wiry dancer's body Tsukamoto ably meets this challenge, and she certainly doesn't embarrass herself with the few dialogue scenes that she has. Jun Kunimura (whom you may recognise as Boss Tanaka from Kill Bill vol.1) gives a quiet/LOUD turn as Ryoko's aggrieved father. It's with his character's help that Hiroshi is able to express and interpret his visions of Ryoko, allowing both men to come to terms with their grief and then the more restrained side of Kunimura comes to the fore.
But for all of the interesting ideas and handsome photography that drive Vital, I did not find the film to be particularly engaging. The film poses deep questions but they aren't really answered, and the motivations of some of the characters are vague at best. This hinders our understanding of them, and the largely sedate performances only further this feeling. The disjointed sense of time and the flashbacks/visions of nature were obviously important (vital, if you will) to Tsukamoto, but again it unfortunately has the effect of distancing the audience and can veer towards the pretentious at times.
Such a fragmented narrative means that scenes come and go with no real rhyme or reason, and although there is a sense of closure I was still left quite unmoved by the time the credits rolled. Baffled is probably the correct term, but on the plus side the film looks beautiful, wondrous really on such limited means, and the sound is nicely unsettling. One wonders if Tsukamoto was so wrapped up in photographing Vital that it became more of an expressionistic experiment, in which case it's a valiant attempt that unfortunately falls short. And anyone randomly looking for another spooky slice of J-Horror had best look elsewhere.