Shinya Tsukamoto takes his longstanding fascination with flesh and the human body several steps further in “Vital.” Macabre yet oddly poignant, graphically physical but also metaphysical, clinical yet unexpectedly soulful, this profoundly strange story concerns an amnesiac medical student whose memory of his lost lover is reawakened when her body turns up on his dissection table. No less an acquired taste than the maverick Japanese director’s previous films, this melancholy ghost romance is sufficiently original to warrant niche theatrical exposure en route to specialized DVD release.
Barely surviving an auto accident in which his girlfriend Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto) was killed, Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano) is unable to remember his former life. During his convalescence, all that comes back is his love of medicine, prompting him to enroll in medical school. He turns the head of ambitious fellow student Ikumi (Kiki), but Hiroshi remains resistant to her advances.
In anatomy class, as students dissect a human body for the first time, the young female corpse on Hiroshi’s table triggers visits from Ryoko to a place buried deep in his mind. While the supervising doctor (Ittoku Kushida) instructs the class to look for hard facts in their examination, Hiroshi increasingly becomes gripped by these dreamy flashes of memory.
Meticulously peeling back layers of skin and tissue, and sawing through bone, he looks for answers to the woman’s death but also to deeper questions about human consciousness. Ikumi, meanwhile, is increasingly unable to overcome her squeamishness and participate in the class or to compete with Hiroshi’s past. As the pieces gradually fit together, Hiroshi becomes convinced Ryoko has something to tell him before her soul departs.
Tsukamoto creates a distinctive mood by elegantly juxtaposing the cold precision of an anatomical textbook in the dissection scenes and Hiroshi’s obsessive sketches with the elegiac quality of his lost romance with Ryoko.
The narrative at times could be more linear and accessible, but this is justified by the mix of reality with blurred memory, and Hiroshi’s inability to sort the confused timeline in his head. Despite its somewhat extreme nature and enigmatic construction, “Vital” ultimately becomes a haunting drama about the unfathomable line of communication between the dead and the living. As such, it could even join the list of Japanese features in the U.S. remake pipeline, something unlikely to be said about any of Tsukamoto’s more outre previous films.
A virtual one-man band as usual, Tsukamoto produced, directed, wrote, edited, shot and art-directed the film. The look shifts fluidly between cool blue tones and darkness in Hiroshi’s apartment, sterile yellows in the university hospital and warmer, softer shades in Hiroshi’s recollections of Ryoko. Soundtrack effectively blends Chu Ishikawa’s ominous music with ambient noise and elemental sounds of wind, waves and rain, the latter at times casting arresting shadows across the frame.
As the two women vying for Hiroshi’s attentions, film newcomers Nami Tsukamoto and Kiki bring different kinds of ethereal presence, while Asano (“Zatoichi”) holds the drama together with his hypnotically driven, emotionally wounded performance.