The strangely cathartic Vital represents a significant shift in the career of multi-tasking auteur Shinya Tsukamoto. Moving away from the preoccupation with dehumanization and industrialization that made Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) such grimly exhilarating science-fiction epics, Vital is a more restrained experience with modifications to aesthetic sensibility and thematic concern that are natural extensions rather than sudden revisions. Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano) wakes up in a hospital bed following a car crash which has taken the life of his girlfriend, Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto). Unable to remember anything about his past life, Hiroshi is uncomfortable in the company of his parents and struggles to adapt to routine in the family home. When he finds a box filled with his old medical textbooks, Hiroshi decides to undertake the degree that he had abandoned prior to the accident. He moves into a gloomy apartment near the medical school and becomes completely immersed in the course, easily establishing himself as the most promising student in the programme, attracting the attention of alluring but troubled classmate Ikumi (Kiki), with whom he embarks on a sexually-adventurous relationship. When the course reaches the dissection stage, cadavers are assigned to the group and Hiroshi realises that the corpse that he is using to learn about the workings of the human body is actually that of Ryoko. This prompts Hiroshi to reconstruct his relationship with Ryoko in his imagination while deconstructing her corpse on the dissection table, resulting in obsessive patterns of behaviour.
Vital is another example of Tsukamoto’s fascination with the body, but aside from the recurring image of four industrial chimneys and Hiroshi discussing his dreams about robots, the cyberpunk trappings are largely absent in favour of a pared-down examination of grief and repressed memory, which are intertwined. Hiroshi visits Ryoko’s parents, who are initially uncomfortable with his presence, but he is eventually able to forge a relationship with them and they are ultimately able to rediscover Ryoko together. This enables Hiroshi to not only recall the accident, but to return to his relationship with his deceased girlfriend through a series of surreal dreams. These sequences take Tsukamoto further away from the world of urban grime into more natural territory; the director’s trademark blue filters are temporarily replaced with a sun-drenched aesthetic in which brighter palettes are emphasized and his hyper-real tendencies are tempered by the sleep-induced rhythms of his protagonist’s mental state. Vital is anchored emotionally by an outstanding performance from Asano. Alternately dressed in an old black, baggy sweater or white medical scrubs, and largely silent for much of the running time, he delivers a haunting portrayal of a young man who seems to have little interest in his past, only to become obsessed with it when directly confronted with buried trauma. The lab used for dissection has the unwelcoming look of a dingy basement, and Tsukamoto’s attention to detail complements Asano’s dramatic commitment as Hiroshi pokes around in his sub-conscious, dredging up memories that merge with hallucinatory fantasy.
By placing an emphasis on actors over special effects, Tsukamoto is able to explore how such obsession with the past can serve to derail the promise of the present. Hiroshi’s burgeoning relationship with Ikumi becomes increasingly strained, so what begins as a physically-charged arrangement with some level of mutual understanding ends abruptly with a volatile confrontation in a police station. From the outset, Hiroshi and Ikumi push their relationship to its sexual limits, with the sadomasochistic elements of Vital recalling Tsukamoto’s erotic drama A Snake of June (2002), but Hiroshi remains distant as Ikumi becomes more involved. A superbly edited sequence finds the director repeating the same shots of the two students as they work for extended periods in the medical lab, remaining at the dissection table long after their fellow classmates have left for the day: Hiroshi fixates on Ryoko’s corpse, and Ikumi in turn fixates on Hiroshi, while both remain unfulfilled. It’s a bizarre yet painfully relatable love ‘triangle’, with Hiroshi too immersed in rediscovering his relationship with Ryoko to recognise Ikumi’s breakdown. There are echoes of JG Ballard’s novel Crash (1973), most explicitly in the flashback to the accident in which Ryoko contemplates what it would feel like to smash into another vehicle, and the overall tone is similarly detached until the delayed out-pouring of the conclusion. Vital is a largely minimalist experience – economic in execution, short on dialogue, shot with mostly hand-held cameras – but is arguably one of Tsukamoto’s deepest and most satisfying films to date.