Vital DVD Review (Region 0)

Seth Gecko

retired member
<P STYLE='text-align: center'><FONT STYLE='font-size: 18px'><IMG SRC='' ALT='Vital DVD cover artwork' ALIGN='RIGHT'>Vital</FONT><br>Reviewed April 2006 by <A HREF='search.php?do=process&query=Geoff Dearth&showposts=1&forumchoice[]=107&forumchoice[]=197' target='_top'>Geoff Dearth</A>.</P><div ALIGN='CENTER'>Review Disc Supplied and Shipping NOW from <a href="" target=”_blank> <img src="" Align="absmiddle"></a><br>Please support us by using our review sponsors.</div><P><B>The Movie : 6</B></P><P>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.</p><P>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.</p><P>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.</p><P>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.</p><P>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…</p><P>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.</p><P>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.</p><P>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.</p><P>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.</p><P>The cast is populated by a strong set of actors, with Japanese leading man <i>du jour</i> 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.</p><P>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.</p><P>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.</p><P>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.</p><P><B>Picture : 8</B></P><P>Framed at 1.85:1 (not the 1.78:1 that the cover suggests) and anamorphically enhanced for 16:9 displays, Tartan have done a fine job. Tsukamoto’s colour scheme is luxuriantly reproduced, with deep orange tints, the cold blue filters and the vibrant green of nature appearing well saturated with no unsightly colour bleed. Contrast is good rather than outstanding, as blacks can sometimes seem a little crushed which leads to a slight loss of shadow detail. It’s nothing serious though.</p><P>Detail levels are excellent while grain is largely subdued, but there’s still a slightly rough texture to the transfer which keeps it looking nicely film-like. Compression is very good - although this is not a surprise with such a short film (a slender 82 minutes, although the cover states 85) that’s composed of many static shots - a fact backed up by the extremely high average bitrate (see below). The worst offence that this transfer commits is noticeable edge-halos, but thankfully they’re not too intense and are only really apparent on longer shots. This really is a fine transfer.</p><P STYLE='text-align: center'><IMG SRC='' ALT='Vital'></P><P><B>Sound : 7</B></P><P>Tsukamoto’s sound mix, as mentioned above, is a very visceral affair. We get three options for home presentation on the disc, all in the original Japanese language (no bad dubs here). The film was originally mixed in DTS Stereo which is not a discrete multi-channel format (a reflection of the low budget), but on their DVD Tartan have seen fit to include a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 track, as well as Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo.</p><P>The three mixes are all quite similar, with dialogue cleanly rendered, Chu Ishikawa‘s often-imposing music coming across well and those deliciously juicy sound effects really standing out. The discrete surround mixes are superior to the stereo track in terms of overall atmosphere though, with slightly more articulate use of the rear channels and clearer bass (not that there’s a lot around). I was hard-pressed to tell the Dolby 5.1 and the DTS 5.1 apart, the latter maybe just having an edge due to slightly crisper vocals and sound effects. Yet I couldn’t instantly compare them on the fly because Tartan, in their infinite wisdom, have disabled that facility on the disc. Basically, both tracks do an unspectacular but solid job.</p><P>But when I compared certain scenes between the 5.1 mixes and the stereo track, I was surprised to notice that some effects stood out more on the latter. The squelches etc are more pronounced on the stereo mix, making the dissection scenes even more unsettling. Worse, there is also a high-pitched whining sound present during some moments in both 5.1 mixes (listen at the 20:00 minute mark for an example if you have the disc) which is simply not there on the stereo track. Is this an unfortunate lack of quality control with the 5.1 master, or a Tsukamoto-approved addition to the sound design? Unfortunately I don’t have an answer…</p><P STYLE='text-align: center'><IMG SRC='' ALT='Vital'></P><P><B>Extras : 7</B></P><P>Vital is surprisingly well-featured. There’s nearly an hour of additional video content plus an audio commentary, and most of it is well worth taking in. The <i>Audio Commentary</i> by Tom Mes (author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto) is very good, the man hosting a Bey Logan-style track in which he provides a lot of detailed information delivered with good pacing. This ranges from anecdotes about the production (having actually been on-set during much of the filming) to various comments about the imagery, the themes that Tsukamoto explores, information about the actors and so on.</p><P>Next is the ‘Making of Vital’ featurette, although it’s blandly called <i>Behind The Scenes</i> in the DVD menu. Running for over 18 minutes, it’s a compressed look at the film’s 7-week shooting schedule, comprised mainly of on-set camcorder footage with a few words from Tsukamoto mixed in. It’s light but informative. (There’s not a lot of spoken narration on any of the extras, but instead subtitles are overlaid which tell us the date, where we are, what’s going on etc. This being a Japanese featurette, the subtitles are in Japanese with English equivalents generated at the top of the screen. The other featurettes follow a similar camcorder-footage-with-subtitles template).</p><P>The <i>World Premiere Footage</i> featurette is a 10-minute look at the world premiere of the film, following the director and stars around as they do their best not to get worn out endlessly promoting the film at the Venice Film Festival. The <i>Cast and Crew Q & A</i> (recorded at a screening of the film) runs for a couple of minutes and is barely worth bothering with, featuring nothing more than fluffy sound bites.</p><P>The <i>Making The Props</i> featurette (actually titled Body Moulding: Hisashi Oda) clocks in at 10 minutes and looks at the making of the bodies used in the film by long time Tsukamoto collaborator Oda. It’s rather dry, but does offer some insight into the work that went into creating the corpses and also Oda’s own experiences researching the subject matter.</p><P>The <i>Shinya Tsukamoto Interview</i> lasts for 11 minutes and gives us a look inside the mind of this celebrated director as he elaborates on the themes and ideas that informed Vital, and it ties with the audio commentary for best feature on the disc. Finally we have the <i>Music Video</i> of ‘Blue Bird’ by Cocco. Seeing as the song plays out over the end credits this really wasn’t worth including, not least because it isn’t actually a proper video, being just a montage of clips from the film. Nice song anyway. No theatrical trailer is included, which is a pity as I always find those little adverts to be mildly diverting and sometimes even interesting, which can also be said of Jonathan Clements’ brief <i>Film Notes</i> in the insert that accompanies the disc.</p><P STYLE='text-align: center'><IMG SRC='' ALT='Vital'></P><P><B>Trivia</B><br><P>For user information we use Bitrate 1.4 to scan the disk for the video bitrate, which also calculates the average bitrate. Below is a graph illustrating the bitrate of the disk, including the average bitrate reading. This disk averaged at 8.31 Mbps.</p></P><P STYLE='text-align: center'><IMG SRC='' ALT='Vital'></P><P><B>Verdict : 6</B></P><P>Vital is hailed as “Hypnotic and severely beautiful” on the DVD cover - I agree with the second part. It’s not so much “hypnotic” as soporific however, such is the lack of interest that I had in the film. Director Shinya Tsukamoto has an eye for composition and firm ideas of what he wants to communicate, but here he has crafted them in such a wilfully ambiguous and fragmented way as to make Vital very hard going at times. As Tsukamoto-san says in one of the extra features: “Because there is no truth, we cannot find it”, which might fulfil his artistic intentions but makes for an ultimately unsatisfying film.</p><P>Tartan’s DVD is a fine package however, featuring a very good audio/video presentation (slight niggles with the 5.1 mixes aside) and some decent extra features that shine plenty of light on the motivation behind the film. There are a couple of dud features in there, but the commentary is excellent, as is the interview with Tsukamoto.</p> <div ALIGN='CENTER'>Review Disc Supplied and Shipping NOW from <a href="" target=”_blank> <img src="" Align="absmiddle"></a><br>Please support us by using our review sponsors.</div><TABLE border='0' CELLPADDING='0' CELLSPACING='2' WIDTH='100%'><TR><TD COLSPAN='2'><B>Vital (2004)</B></TD></TR><TR><TD WIDTH='65' VALIGN='TOP'>Genres</TD><TD><A HREF='' target='_blank'>Drama</A>, <A HREF='' target='_blank'>Thriller</A></TD></TR><TR><TD WIDTH='65' VALIGN='TOP'>Director</TD><TD><A HREF=' Tsukamoto' target='_blank'>Shinya Tsukamoto</A></TD></TR><TR><TD WIDTH='65' VALIGN='TOP'>Stars</TD><TD><A HREF=' Asano' target='_blank'>Tadanobu Asano</A>, <A HREF=' Tsukamoto' target='_blank'>Nami Tsukamoto</A>, <A HREF='' target='_blank'>Kiki</A>, <A HREF=' Kushida' target='_blank'>Kazuyoshi Kushida</A>, <A HREF='' target='_blank'>Lily</A>, <A HREF=' Kino' target='_blank'>Hana Kino</A></TD></TR><TR><TD WIDTH='65'><B>Region</B></TD><TD><B>0</B> <FONT>(UK)</FONT></TD></TR><TR><TD VALIGN='TOP' WIDTH='65'>Supplier</TD><TD><FONT>Tartan Asia Extreme. Released Monday 20th February 2006</FONT></TD></TR><TR><TD VALIGN='TOP' WIDTH='65'>SRP</TD><TD><FONT>£19.99</FONT></TD></TR><TR><TD VALIGN='TOP' WIDTH='65'>Discs</TD><TD><FONT>1</FONT></TD></TR><TR><TD VALIGN='TOP' WIDTH='65'>Format</TD><TD><FONT>DVD9</FONT></TD></TR><TR><TD VALIGN='TOP' WIDTH='65'>Time</TD><TD><FONT>82 mins.</FONT></TD></TR><TR><TD VALIGN='TOP' WIDTH='65'>Chapters</TD><TD><FONT>16</FONT></TD></TR><TR><TD WIDTH='65' VALIGN='TOP'>Picture</TD><TD>Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1&nbsp;</TD></TR><TR><TD WIDTH='65' VALIGN='TOP'>Sound</TD><TD>Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 (192 kbps)<BR>Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 kbps)<BR>Japanese <IMG SRC='' ALIGN='ABSMIDDLE' border='0' ALT='DTS Soundtrack'> 5.1 (768 kbps)</TD></TR><TR><TD WIDTH='65' VALIGN='TOP'>Subtitles</TD><TD>English</TD></TR><TR><TD WIDTH='65' VALIGN='TOP'>Case</TD><TD>Amaray</TD></TR><TR><TD WIDTH='65' VALIGN='TOP'>Extras</TD><TD>World Premiere Footage<BR>Shinya Tsukamoto Interview<BR>Cast & Crew Q&A<BR>Behind The Scenes featurette<BR>Music Video<BR>Audio Commentary by Tom Mes<BR>Jonathan Clements Film Notes</TD></TR></TABLE><P STYLE='text-align: center'>If you would like to comment on this review, please reply below.</P>

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