Vital (2004) by Shinya Tsukamoto

A unique psychological horror film


Shinya Tsukamoto's experimental 1989 horror film "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" established him as a filmmaker of exceptional talent, with a truly unique vision, and "Vital" (2004) is a worthy addition to his filmography. "Vital" shows a clear progression from Tsukamoto's earlier work, with a greater focus on story and character, while retaining the originality and style that define him as an artist.

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The film tells the story of Hiroshi Takagi (Tadanobu Asano) who wakes up from a car accident having lost his memory. He learns that his girlfriend Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto) died in the same incident. After discovering his old books on medicine, he decides to enrol in medical school, a career path he had drifted away from. Despite being clearly confused and depressed, he proves himself as a brilliant student, though he makes few friends amongst his classmates with his cold demeanour. The only fellow student who stays with him is Ikumi (Kiki), who, for unknown reasons, is attracted to the rather solitary Hiroshi. When the class are given corpses to dissect, Hiroshi recognises the body as Ryoko. Seemingly unconcerned, he performs a thorough autopsy, showing a complete lack of fear for the gory work, and drawing detailed diagrams of each portion. This lengthy process is inter-cut with flashbacks of his previous life and dream sequences where Ryoko is still alive. It soon becomes apparent that the dissection is a way for Hiroshi to deal with his grief, almost examining his own psyche as he works on the body of Ryoko.


Tsukamoto, who wrote and directed "Vital", has said that he was inspired, in part, by the anatomical drawings of Leonardo DaVinci and there is that same mix here of science and art, with the meticulous character study, nevertheless, allowing for great creativity in the way it is filmed. The central premise of the film, a man dealing with loss after a car accident, is not a particularly thrilling plot, but the experimental nature of the direction turns this to an experience that plays on your emotions and is disturbing in an understated way. Tsukamoto uses non-linear storytelling, weaving his narrative through a collection of garbled scenes that coagulate to form a solid picture, albeit one that is as jumbled as the parts of a dismembered body. 

The editing is such that it creates a feeling of uneasiness where you are not sure whether you can trust your own senses, whether you are watching reality or some nightmare in which Hiroshi cannot escape from the horror of what happened. Using the autopsy as a metaphor for coming to terms with grief, slowly picking over each painful memory, is a stroke of genius and helps create the sense of hollow dread experienced by the characters that would be less powerful if this was a more straightforward narrative. There are still many surrealist, or artistic, moments throughout, with colour-shifts, extreme close-ups, and most strikingly, the recurring image of tall towers pluming smoke into the sky. These moments cause you to ponder their significance while creating a sense of disorientation and uneasiness that you are missing something. A feeling that is perfectly fitting for a story about amnesia and debilitating grief.

Tadanobu Asano is great as the troubled Hiroshi. There are long stretches of the film where he remains silent and you are never quite sure what he is thinking. Through flashbacks, we see a different side of him, in his relationship with Ryoko. The supporting cast all do a great job too. Jun Kunimura as Ryoko's father, Nami Tsukamoto as Ryoko, and Kiki as Ikumi, all giving emotional performances that perfectly balance the quiet grief of Asano's protagonist.


Chu Ishikawa, who also worked with Tsukamoto on "Tetsuo" provides a industrial ambient score that swells up at moments throughout the film and features flourishes, such as the ringing bell signifying death. The music is complemented with superb sound design, with many scenes having only the wet sound of cutting up bodies, or the endless pouring rain as background noise. The practical effects for the dissection sequences are excellent. Along with the detailed sketches, they perfectly encapsulate the themes of the film without ever needing to explicitly state them. Although the notion of cutting up a dead body might sound terrifying at first, as the film progresses, we actually feel quite detached from it, in the same way that Hiroshi feels a disconnect between his memories of Ryoko and the body on the table before him. The film could not easily be described as a horror as there are few scenes of violence or blood and nothing like a jump-scare. Instead, it is infused with a melancholy horror, a slow realization of what death really means.

In the end, surprising as it might sound, the film is an unconventional love story and one of the most realistic representations of grief I have seen. "Vital" is far more accessible than Tsukamoto's earlier shock-horror films, with a strong central story and engaging performances that helps you pick your way through the confusion towards a satisfyingly emotional ending.


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Asian Film Vault: Vital (2004) by Shinya Tsukamoto
Vital (2004) by Shinya Tsukamoto
A unique psychological horror film
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