It might have been easy to descend into a creepy, stomach churning genre film when the main narrative device of the story is a cadaver, but somehow that’s exactly what Shinya Tsukamoto’s 2004 film Vital isn’t. Instead, and it sounds strange to say, it is something of a love story, a subtle, sedated ode to loss and the process of grieving that is at times both vaguely discomforting and quietly beautiful.
In yet another solid performance of minimalist effort, Tadanobu Asano, as young medical student Hiroshi, wakes up to discover he was involved in an horrific traffic accident, and that he’s been in a coma, and that his girlfriend is dead. And already Tsukamoto is posing some thoughtful questions about how memory constructs us, how living is based on what we know of it having lived so far, because Hiroshi can’t remember anything, and it’s like he’s dead himself, a disembodied impression in the world, a ghost trying to recall his place. In an effort to reconnect to his life, Hiroshi returns to the study he previously apparently abandoned, and shuffles through an isolated, tunnel-vision existence where the highlights of the day include the bizarre grinding of the lift doors in his apartment building and an obsessive fascination with anatomical drawings. Even the stunning, slightly damaged Ikumi (played by model Kiki) taking a bit of a stalker interest in him isn’t that big a blip on his psychological radar. Hiroshi’s world, without any memories to connect him to it, is a surreal, ominous place.
So surreal and ominous in fact that you really do expect Hiroshi and his tentative grip on reality to start heading South in a nasty way at any point. The use of devices similar to those in Tsukamoto’s other films — a distressed, multi-exposed camera over a grating soundscape designed specifically to put the audience on edge — would indicate as much, but instead of trying to scare Tsukamoto applies them in a much more sophisticated manner. These overt cues become reflective codes, giving subtle, subconscious signs as to the character’s mental state, to the breakthrough in his psychology lingering just below his surface. With a surprisingly deft touch, the director silently shakes the foundations of Hiroshi’s – and therefore the viewer’s – reality. No, the decaying paint on the wall is not moving, is not as biological in nature as it appears. Hiroshi is only imagining it. Perhaps.
It is this strange manipulation of the supposedly static which gives this film its tension. And it is the striking contrasts between Hiroshi’s wan reality and the liveliness and colour of the Afterlife where he believes he is connecting with his dead girlfriend’s soul that gives the film its true meaning. Tsukamoto is dissecting loss in a manner very like the passionless surgeon, but he is not ignoring the less tangible, less logical aspects of death and grief. In bursts of colour and sound, in sweeping scenes of interpretative dance that might represent the dividing line between the known and the unknowable, or merely express the storm of emotions that the grieving experience, Tsukamoto shows Hiroshi slowly coming back to life. He shows it is no easy journey. Yet these scenes, following Hiroshi’s discovery of the identity of the cadaver he is studying in class and the snapshots of returning memory, are some of the most affecting moments of the film. By casting an analytic eye on the physiological makeup of the human body, the potential disturbing becomes somehow lovely in its mystery. It’s quite a feat, to show the beauty inherent in something as simple and alien as a human cornea…
The only real criticisms with Vital lies in the story’s distance from the screen. There is something, despite the obvious emotion in Asano’s acting and the excellent support cast, which remains aloof about this film. It is not as visceral as one might have anticipated, but neither has it the gut-wrenching impact of the deeply personal. Hiroshi’s amnesia prevents the watcher from ever getting any closer than the borderline intellectualisation of his situation and a faint sense of sympathy. Very much like Hiroshi’s medical studies, Vital is a dissection of the process of grief, removed a little from being too painful but perhaps all the clearer for it.