Despite his best efforts and best intentions, this film, by noted Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto, still left Judge Eric Profancik a bit confused.
"The truth is there for you to see."
I'm still trying to dabble in Asian films more. Admittedly, I'm not doing all that well, though my recent subscription to Netflix should help me increase my viewing levels. When I came across the plot synopsis for Vital and saw it was a Japanese film, I (slightly) jumped at the chance to review it. It sounded like a very interesting concept, and I knew—or at least strongly hoped—that it would be vastly different from the usual Hollywood fare.
Only later did I learn that this film is from the famous director Shinya Tsukamoto, the man who came to fame with Tensuo and continued on with other films like Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet, and Ichi the Killer.
Can someone in my shoes appreciate Vital? Of course I can, but can I truly understand everything that is going on? With the usual Hollywood storytelling shortcuts absent, a director with a unique style, and a lack of general knowledge of the genre, how would I view Vital? Would I find it full of life, or like the walking dead?
Facts of the Case
Hiroshi Takagi (Tadanobu Asano) is in a car accident, leaving him with total memory loss. Back at home with his parents, he stumbles across a medical dissection book in the closet. He finds himself drawn to the text, quickly becomes absorbed in it, and soon enrolls in medical school. Before the accident, there was great hope in his family that Hiroshi would go to medical school.
Hiroshi is extremely intelligent, and soon reaches the top of his class at school. But it isn't until he enters the human dissection class that he realizes he's also an exceptionally talented artist—as the students are required to diagram their cadaver. As the class progresses, Hiroshi soon begins to remember life before the accident. But why this is happening is all the more startling. Hiroshi realizes that the female cadaver he is dissecting was his girlfriend, Ryoko, who died in that car accident.
With each passing day, as Hiroshi cuts deeper and deeper into the cadaver, it releases more and more memories from his past. But remembering can be a strange and painful process.
I find myself quite torn by Vital, which translates to "life." On the one hand, I enjoyed the idea and the general outline of the story; the idea is certainly fresh and replete with possibilities. The acting is also very good, especially with Asano portraying the lost, withdrawn, and moody Takagi with aplomb. Tsukamoto's direction is excellent, conveying his unique style and vision without excess. But on the other hand, each of those strengths is also a significant drawback for me.
With the story, it takes a wild turn. Instead of Takagi having his memories simply come back to him, Tsukamoto decided to involve some nebulous sort of time travel. At first it's confusing because you don't expect it (which can be good), then it simply feels inappropriate. Why is this happening to Takagi? More importantly, is it really happening to Takagi? These flashbacks, memory resurfacings, or temporal anomalies—whatever they are—seem wholly contradictory to the rest of the film, which is grounded solidly in reality. What point is this trying to make?
I find it difficult to rate the acting in a foreign film, for understanding the dialogue is a key facet. If you don't understand the language, how do you understand the inflections and subtleties? Without the language, you're missing a huge chunk of the acting. Regardless, Asano gives Mr. Takagi an interesting portrayal. Yet he's not an especially likable character. For nearly the entire movie he's withdrawn, quiet, and sullen. He then takes a sharp turn into creepiness when he continues to dissect the cadaver of the woman he used to love. It's hard to relate to such odd circumstances. But, in the grand scheme, this is a minor nitpick.
My main problem is understanding Tsukamoto. He is an excellent, talented director with a captivating style. But someone like me, who has never seen a Tsukamoto film prior to this, can find himself lost in the subtleties and not-so-subtle trademarks of the director. From what I learned in the bonus materials, Vital is Tsukamoto's "calmest" film, but it's still woven through with his trademark themes. These themes, and their inclusion in the film, confused me. I didn't understand why they were there, except just to be there. They didn't seem to have any connection to the film. "Such as," you ask? Such as the opening shots of the smokestacks. What does this "industrialization" have to do with an amnesiac who ends up dissecting the cadaver of his girlfriend? Then there's this overtone of "nature." We visit a beach, see close-ups of flowers, and so forth, but what does it mean? How does it connect to Takagi's situation? And what's up with the dancing from Ryoko? What does it mean, and why is it so "jerky"?
Another thing that completely baffled me was the entire conceit of the movie. From information given in the bonus materials, it seems Tsukamoto wanted Vital to be an exploration of consciousness; of the human soul. Where is it? Can you find it in the body? Oddly, as I watched Vital twice, I never once got the slightest inclination of this idea. The idea was never discussed, never mentioned, nor ever given the slightest allusion that I could ascertain. It must be there, since the bonus materials mention it fairly extensively; but I didn't see it.
That's why I am torn by Vital. It is a good film, with an intriguing idea that has an interesting avenue of exploration. Yet because Tsukamoto has a unique style and certain recurring themes, I feel that I don't completely grasp the subtleties of the film. I can see the surface, but can't get under its skin.
Vital is part of Tartan's Asia Extreme line, and fans will be pleased with the disc's presentation. The anamorphic video is sharp and clean without any discernible errors; you'll be able to see every deep pore on Asano's face. Tsukamoto's varying use of the color palette heightens the mood, with warm reds and cool blues that come across richly. All of your audio options are in Japanese (sorry, no dubs here, just an English subtitle), and each is well done. You can choose from DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, or DD 2.0 tracks. If you have a DTS receiver, you'll find this to be the superior option, with a more powerful and dynamic presentation. Still, each has clear dialogue without any hiss or distortion.
The DVD also includes a healthy assortment of extras, but I found myself oddly disinterested in most of them. For my money, the audio commentary by author Tom Mes (who follows Tsukamoto and Asian cinema closely) is the best bet. As a Tsukamoto virgin, I learned much about the director from Mr. Mes; however, I didn't learn much about Vital. Next up is "The Making of Vital" (18 minutes, 45 seconds), which reinforces the notion that Japanese filmmaking is different from American filmmaking. Then there's "Behind the Scenes: Venice Film Festival Premiere" (10 minutes, 45 seconds), where more time is spent on the actors and director than the film itself. Moving on, "Interview with the Director" (11 minutes) taught me a bit more about Tsukamoto; the "Special Effects Featurette" (10.5 minutes) seemed oddly titled, as it felt more like a philosophical discussion than a practical effects discussion. Rounding things out are a music video (6.5 minutes), the movie's trailer, and some previews for other Tartan films. Again, these items may be more interesting to a Tsukamoto connoisseur. Note that all of the bonus items, except the commentary, are in Japanese with English subtitles.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a brilliant evolution in the repertoire of Shinya Tsukamoto. Vital is a breathtaking assemblage of his classic elements blended with new ideas that run contrary to his previous films. Fans will find much to savor in this movie, and they will also enjoy the new turns from the renowned director. We've never seen Tsukamoto so intimate with his subjects, and Vital gets you closer than you ever imagined.
Maybe if I watched Vital for a third or fourth time some of my questions might come into focus? Might Tsukamoto's stylistic choices and concepts make more sense after I've written this? Will things begin to click? I guess time will be the judge on that one. I like the film, and I really like the idea that it confuses me, making me want to go back to it again. Yet, as you read above, my confusion as a first-timer to Tsukamoto's work causes me dismay. It's having stories and ideas unfold without my Hollywood safety net that challenges me; but I am a bit of a lazy filmgoer. Fans of Tsukamoto's work: ignore my ramblings and pick up this disc. There is nothing here that will make you lament your choice. For those in shoes similar to mine, give this one a rental first.
Vital is hereby found not guilty of abusing a corpse.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Audio Commentary by Author Tom Mes
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