Japanese Release Date: 24th May, 2003
Running Time: 85 mins.
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto(Screenplay)
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, KIKI, Nami Tsukamoto, Kazuyoshi Kushida, Lily, Jun Kunimura, Hana Kino, Ittoku Kishibe
Tsukamoto once again brings us a tale of metamorphosis but, as in A Snake of June, it is more psychic and mental than physical, life affirming instead of destructive and much calmer than usual. The fascination with cyberpunk and body-horror, once an overwhelming aspect of his early films, is toned down and replaced with a humanistic tale of life, death and memory. Warning: this is a long review which does not contain any particular spoilers but discusses the film in detail.
Hiroshi Takagi (Asano) wakes up after a car accident in which a truck crashed into his car. He can’t remember anything, not even the faces of his parents who take him home, but when he reads two of his old books, the first named Doctors and Medicine, the second named Dissection, an interest in medicine emerges and he enters medical college. He soon catches the attention of a beautiful student named Ikumi Yoshimoto (KIKI) who watches him as he sits in lectures but he is not interested in her which piques her interest. As their course enters the rainy season they begin a four month class focussing on dissection and Takagi and Yoshimoto find themselves dissecting the same corpse which is around the same time that Takagi’s has dreams of a woman named Ryoko (Tsukamoto) who exists in a beautiful dream space and his memories begin to return.
I first saw Vital around seven years ago when it had a theatrical run in U.K. cinemas. What I remembered of it before this review is the beauty of the film and the expressive dancing. What I forgot is the story which focusses on memory, the soul and the possibility of life after death. Rediscovering this story and seeing it as part of Tsukamoto season revealed his continued evolution as a filmmaker and the way he uses the medium of film to tell a story.
You’ll find out as you dissect
Vital is beautiful. I cannot stress enough just how beautiful this film is. This beauty is always in service of content.
Vital is an existential drama about how memory and experience make up an individual and the quest of Takagi in locating them. It examines whether a person who is loved ceases to exist once death claims them and they can no longer define themselves and how their memory can resurface in those left behind after great trauma.
Tsukamoto has always been a director who has made visually striking films. He is skilled at using the visuals of a film to convey his ideas, choosing and shooting locations in a way that makes them threatening, using editing techniques where his manic energy and imagination either beats and terrifies the viewer into submission or used carefully and tactically to build up certain impressions, and using actors in ways which truly get across their character’s emotional landscape. While he has toned down some of the energy from earlier in his career, what endures is the fact that there is no visual illiteracy. Indeed, his familiar spirit and ideas are evident in the story and his familiar stylistic techniques essay his favourite subject: the transformation of a person in uninviting environments thanks to, as one character in Vital puts it, “the vast realms of the unconscious where repressed desires battle to make themselves known.”
If the sets and locations of Tokyo Fist and Tetsuo I and II spoke of inhuman living spaces that fostered the nightmares of different characters and spoke of the encroaching dominance of technology and creeping alienation and atomisation of society, the sets and locations of Vital speak specifically of the mental anguish that Takagi is undergoing. While early films are shot in nightmare landscapes, Vital is one with depthless mysteries that people must strain through to get to something beautiful. Most importantly, in a film where memory and imagination are explored, the visuals always evoke an emotional response.
The film is visually split in two with the cold and rotten reality of Tokyo contrasting with memory/fantasy scenes of gorgeous Okinawa.
Like A Snake of June, there is the constant view and sound of rain. The use of water suggests the revealing of things – emotions and perceptions of an individual – that cannot stay hidden/submerged.
I took Tokyo with its cold atmosphere, harsh architecture and the dank hallways as a reflection of the state of Takagi’s broken memory. The rotten, mildewed walls which are witnessed in his apartment, school and the dissection room reflect his corroded memory. Takagi wanders around locations looking lost. These locations surround him when he enters the dream world to escape reality and recover his memory. The dream world is the place where Ryoko resides as a ghost, a memory desirous to make her individuality felt and it is a psychic space shot to reflect an idealised state what with its phenomenally verdant forests and luscious beaches, where nature is bursting with life. Even though reality looks dour, there is a melancholy beauty as seen in the church like library but it is nothing compared to the beauty of Okinawa.
What is revealed in the dream space is a touching relationship between Takagi and Ryoko in beautiful scenes where they both smile and are animated, enjoying each other’s presence, questioning the nature of reality. Who can blame Takagi for wanting to exist in dreams? When compared to Takagi’s zombie state in reality and the harsh emotions that he encounters it is a refuge from the toughness of reality where Ikumi, the opposite of Ryoko, a damaged woman looking for her own individual salvation resides.
Tsukamoto’s fascination with the body is here. Cadavers are beautifully shot. This film is not one for the squeamish. Skin is removed, muscle and bone exposed, tendons manipulated and rib cages cracked open. Ever wanted to see an eye dissected? It’s here! It is not just for show as it is all reverently shot as this is part of the way that Takagi connects with his memories and Tsukamoto seems to have a genuine interest in mapping out the human body and locating the soul.
Tsukamoto also brings his talent and visual flair into the editing process. He regularly uses extreme close ups to track characters’ faces in order to map their feelings. He also interposes liquid with Takagi’s face. His ability to switch between different mental spaces is shown with dissolves and crash cutting to Okinawa and back to Yoshimoto in the grim apartment. While a familiar stop-motion scene might show journeys across great distances (both mental and physical) is missing from this film, there is a masterful sequence in the dissection room where the passing of the rainy season is shot with match-cuts where the day to day operations take place behind Ikumi and we track the ritual/progress of the course.
These techniques are punctuations in the beautiful landscape and they describe different ideas and plot point, yet they bind everything together as a whole. Vital stands out as the most visually satisfying, utterly gorgeous, bold and remarkable film (Tsukamoto was in charge of the art direction and cinematography here) that Tsukamoto has created.
The music of Chu Ishikawa is also used brilliantly, its choral chanting and electronic music being uplifting and beautiful, giving the whole film a reverent air. Heck, even the end song, Blue Bird (video contains spoilers), by COCCO gave me shivers up and down my spine. All of this would fall flat if not for the actors and Tsukamoto is brilliant at working with actors.
Human character is not constant
Asano, is an actor who is able to create a calm presence which suggests many things: helpless anger in Bright Future, and a fragmented and lost soul in Vital. His performance is one of subtleness and intensity which is split evenly between dream and reality. He is believably lost in a fog of memory loss which leaves him saying, “I don’t understand anything anymore.” As he realises what he has lost, his zealousness in dissection feels like he is desperately trying to grab the memories and this shows us how much both Ryoko and his recovery mean to him. No melodrama. No falseness. I believed him.
Both of the female leads are remarkable presences. The spirits who guide Asano and each other to a kind of peace. Played in the wrong manner and they might have become shrill presences or forgettable but Tsukamoto’s script and direction gives them more than enough character and their performances flesh them out more.
KIKI is visually striking visual presence with her refined air and cultivated look. Her cool confidence misleads us into thinking that she is cold and calculating and able to manipulate guys who crowd around her but she is fractured personality and it takes Takagi’s indifference to her to draw out her complex personality.
Tsukamoto is almost her opposite. A natural and innocent looking beauty who is fragile and powerful, she is a siren spirit lost in her own melancholy fog and clinging on to Takagi, trying to understand what her place is. As her story is revealed she takes on depth and created a tragic hue which drew out my empathy and made me understand why Takagi might want to live in his mind and memories if only to be with her. Her dancing which originally drew out somewhat bemused responses from me (I really don’t get dancing) grew in stature as I saw the life force it conveyed. Aware of her energy and beauty, Tsukamoto films her in a variety of ways but it is the freeze frames at her most energetic and the gradual understanding of her situation that stand out.
Time to start anew
In my opinion, few countries produce films that portray and reflect on life, death, relationships and all sorts of other weighty things as well as Japan. In the case of death there are films such as Departures and After Life but it is Vital which stands out as the best I have seen. The journey from trauma, through restoration and on to peace is always intensely beautiful, the story always building to something fascinating, the visuals and music are always arresting, the performances are always compelling. Vital easily shows up other films with similar themes by having more life and soul and style. I surprised myself by liking the film more than I thought I would and as a result I have placed it in my top ten Japanese films of all time.
World Premiere Footage,
Shinya Tsukamoto Interview
Cast & Crew Q&A
Behind the Scenes
Special Effects Featurette
Jonathan Clements Film Notes
Tom Mes Audio Commentary
I have yet to try the extras because I wanted to write the review first… I’ll update it over the weekend. I need to watch Kotoko now!