Vital (2004)

Vital first published by EyeforFilm

Thanks to his use of dream-like narratives and body horror, outsider auteur Tsukamoto Shinya is often regarded as Japan’s answer to David Lynch or David Cronenberg, but in fact his many films (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet, GeminiA Snake Of June), for all their variety of genres, are nourished by a collection of obsessive fixations that is entirely his own. Whether shot in stark monochrome, or with heavily filtered colour coding, they always feature handheld camerawork that is queasily mobile – and an idiosyncratic set of themes recurs with near neurotic regularity throughout his œuvre.

If you are looking for physical transformations and psychological transgressions, for bold reifications of the unconscious and the repressed, for relations between men and women expressed in sadomasochistic terms, or for bizarre (and I mean really bizarre) love triangles, then pick up any film by Tsukamoto, and you are likely to find all of these ingredients somewhere in it. His latest, Vital, is no exception, although, apart from a few kinetic flourishes, such as the opening image in which four industrial chimneys appear to dance and sway before a hyperactive camera, the film is a far more static, restrained affair than his usual cyberpunk offerings, marking a new maturity in his development as an artist.

Takagi Hiroshi (Asano Tadanobu) wakes up in a hospital bed, unable to remember anything about his past life, or the car crash that he has just survived. He feels like a stranger in his family home, but after chancing upon a box filled with his old textbooks and diagrams, he decides, much to his parents’ delight, to recommence the medical degree that he had abandoned some time before the accident. Moving into a bare, dank apartment where he struggles to piece together his identity, Hiroshi becomes absorbed by his studies, attracting the attention of an ambitious fellow student Ikumi (Kiki).

When dissection classes begin, the cadaver of a young, tattooed woman is assigned to their group. Hiroshi begins a tentative relationship with Ikumi, but at the same time starts receiving “visits” from a tattooed girl. Realising that the corpse on the slab before him is that of his girlfriend Ryoko (Tsukamoto Nami), who died in the collision, he embarks on a strange journey of self-discovery, taking apart layer by layer the skin, tissue and bone of the girl he barely remembers loving, while reconstructing a living, breathing version of her in the still fragmented spaces of his mind – until, at last, he is ready to move on, having acquired an image of himself as someone else may have remembered him.

With its use of blue and yellow filters, its unhinged protagonist, its focus on the mind/body split and its confusion of dreams, reality and fantasy, Vital is unmistakably a creation of Tsukamoto. And yet this portrait of loss and fractured memory achieves an aching beauty that is without precedent in the director’s previous work. Many of his long-time fans may well be disappointed by the film’s somewhat quieter brand of intensity, but to my mind Vital sees Tsukamoto, a director who is never less than fascinating, in his finest form, tackling the mysteries of human identity with an elegiac calm.

The coda, meanwhile, with its evocation of Koreeda Hirokazu’s Afterlife (1998), proves as memorably wistful as the smell of rain in the afternoon. Add to this the mesmerisingly blank (and largely silent) performance of Asano, who inhabits its brooding centre, and you have a film soaked in wondrous melancholy.

Vital viewing.

© Anton Bitel