by Christopher Bourne
Shinya Tsukamoto’s beautiful new film Vital (2004), receiving its New York premiere at the film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series, continues his filmic explorations of the human body. His earlier films (the cult classic Tetsuo the Iron Man, Tokyo Fist, Gemini, Bullet Ballet, A Snake of June) focused obsessively on the materiality of the body, and specifically on the various ways it can be smashed, violated, and exposed. However, in Vital, Tsukamoto goes deeper, literally, digging into the mysteries of human consciousness and what constitutes life.
Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano), a medical student, wakes up from a coma, caused by a traffic accident in which his girlfriend Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto) perished. Hiroshi, described by Tsukamoto as a “modern-day Leonardo da Vinci,” returns to his anatomy studies, making detailed drawings of his dissections. Meanwhile, he struggles to piece together his memory, which was severely damaged by the accident. Asano, who is often quiet and nearly somnambulistic during much of this film, maintains a quietly brooding presence, which draws us into his character’s travels through his consciousness, gradually revealing more details of his life and his relationship with Ryoko before the accident. Through the crucial clue of a cadaver’s tattoo, Hiroshi comes to realize, in the film’s most perverse twist, that the body he is dissecting in his anatomy course is in fact that of his dead girlfriend. Ryoko, whom it seems nursed a desire for death, requested that her body be entrusted to the medical school for the students’ use.
Tsukamoto bathes his film in an icy blue palette and exhibits a striking sense of architecture and space, which is quite effective in exploring the contrasting spiritual realms his protagonist explores. During the time he is dissecting Ryoko’s corpse, he experiences frequent visitations from her, and in this way, he travels between the worlds of the living and the dead. When Ryoko was alive, they often flirted with this boundary through their kinky sex games of erotic asphyxiation. Hiroshi existed in the area between life and death during his coma, and ultimately he must choose whether he wants to be with Ryoko in her world, or remain in the world of the living.
Even though there is more than a hint of necrophilia in this scenario, Vital is remarkably free of exploitative elements and is quite restrained in its approach. There are many memorable and arresting images, such as superimposed cremation smokestacks, and the scenes of Ryoko’s visitations, especially one where she performs an anguished dance on a beach. One of the most moving passages in the film is the combined funeral and med-student graduation, where there is a deep respect expressed for the sacrifices the medical subjects and their families have made in the quest to expand human knowledge. “We owe them thanks,” the anatomy class professor intones before the students begin dissecting. And even though the essential question of the path Hiroshi ultimately chooses remains unresolved at the film’s conclusion, this is well in keeping with the deeper mystery the film poses of what constitutes human consciousness, a mystery which we are nowhere close to solving.