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From the inside
A UK/Japan region 2 DVD comparison review of VITAL by Slarek
 

Those coming to Tsukamoto Shinya's Vital with only the experience of his early films to prepare them may be in for something of a surprise. The opening microscopic close-ups and industrial audio-visual assault aside, the tone here is considerably more sedate than in the Tetsuo films or the electrifying urban nightmares of Bullet Ballet and Tokyo Fist. It has been suggested that this is indicative of the director reaching middle age, the raw energy of youth giving way to experience and reflection. It's a fair enough conclusion, evidence for which you'll find not just in the film's technical handling but also its thematic concerns. Although Tsukamoto has returned to a favourite topic of the destruction of the human body, he has approached it from an almost spiritual angle, his interest here being less in the flesh than in the nature of human consciousness.

The story set-up, however, does suggest that Tsukamoto is not yet ready to play safe. Medical student Hiroshi wakes up in hospital with no memory of how he got there, or of the details of his life up to this moment. Returning home with his parents, he learns that he was in a car crash that was the fault of another and that took the life of his girlfriend Ryoko, whom he also cannot remember. The discovery of a medical book prompts him to recall small details of his past, and he elects to return to his studies and re-enrols in medical school. Three years into the course he begins his first dissection class, and in a dark turn of fate, the body he has been given to work on proves to be that of his deceased girlfriend.

If it sounds like I've given a large chunk of plot away here, you should know that I've only outlined the first thirteen minutes of the film. The economy with which the story is set up is extraordinary, given that this thirteen minutes also introduces us to fellow student Ikumi, establishes her as the star pupil and Hiroshi as almost her educational equal, connects and disconnects her romantically to one of the professors (who then kills himself), and suggests the potential for a relationship between her and Hiroshi, all with little in the way of expository dialogue. Time moves forward in disarming hops – Hiroshi discovers and becomes fascinated by the above-mentioned book, then in a single edit is already enrolled in medical school. The first three years pass in less than a minute and include a crucial sequence in which professors repeatedly ponder on the physical location of human consciousness.

Hiroshi's real journey begins with the dissection classes. As he slowly dissects Ryoko's body, her constituent parts recorded in increasingly complex detail in a series of da Vinci-like anatomical drawings,* he begins to have what at first seem to be flashbacks of his time with her, a relationship whose sexual element appears to have been built around mutual erotic asphyxiation, the extremes of life felt only through brushes with death. The memories are first triggered when he encounters Ikumi, who having become distressed at her inability to cope with the dissection classes is attempting self-strangulation. It's an act that leads the two of them into a relationship in which partial asphixiation stands in for sex, and once even prompts a desperate response from Ikumi when her strangulation of Hiroshi is not returned in kind. This has direct echoes throughout Tsukamoto's work, from the sadomasochistic aspect of relationships in Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet to the violent encounter between Yukio and his doppelganger in Sôseiji. This is the Tsukamoto film to which Vital is most stylistically similar, in its pacing, its mixture of carefully composed static shots and more frenetic handheld work, and in its widescreen framing and use of colour filtration. The fractured relationship triangle central to Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet and A Snake of June is also present here but somewhat abstracted, with Ikumi fighting for Hiroshi's attention against the spiritual traces of Ryoko, with which Hiroshi becomes increasingly obsessed.

It is this element that dips the drama into the realms of horror fantasy, as what at first seem to be memories increasingly appear to have spiritual existence, at least from Hiroshi's viewpoint. Despite occasional temporal uncertainty, Hiroshi's later conversations with Ryoko are clearly not recollections of happier times, but taking place in the here and now – she talks of her regret at having died and he of staying with her rather than returning to the real (conscious) world. The two paths become increasingly diverse, with the constant rain and grim décor of Hiroshi's apartment and dissection classes contrasted starkly with the sun-drenched Okinawa beach where he meets with Ryoko. While her body is slowly dismantled in the industrial gloom of the hospital, her spirit runs and dances freely in nature. As he investigates the interior of her body in the smallest detail and shares time with her in the Okinawa sunshine, he gets to know her far better in death than he ever did in life.

The Japanese way of death is an important component of the film and its storytelling, especially in the curious but touchingly respectful ritual associated with finally laying the dissected bodies to rest, which in the context of the story here feels as sad a goodbye as any you'll find in even the best of recent mainstream cinema. But just as affectingly handled is Hiroshi's relationship with Ryoko's parents, who some years after their daughter's death have still, thanks to her deathbed decision to leave her body to science,** not been able to bury her, a ritual of considerable importance to the Japanese. Initially blaming Hiroshi for the accident and furious for bringing them the news that he is dissecting what he then only suspects is her body, they eventually encourage his visits and the memories of their daughter that he shares with them. Later it is Ryoko's father alone who seems able to accept Hiroshi's belief that his encounters with Ryoko are not memories but very real experiences, creating a bond between the two that is as close as any Hiroshi has to a living person at this point. It is through this relationship, and the one that Hiroshi rediscovers with Ryoko, that the film is able to most effectively explore the processes of personal grief and coming to terms with traumatic loss.

Vital always looks and sounds gorgeous, with regular composer Ishikawa Chu's atmospheric score and Tsukamoto's own super-smart editing and compositional camerawork contributing hugely to a story that is told in almost purely cinematic terms. Asano Tadanobu, one of the most successful and enigmatic stars of modern Japanese cinema, is quietly superb as Hiroshi, while once again female leads are compellingly played, with Kiki (another of Tsukamoto's single name actresses) displaying a vulnerable cool as Ikumi, and professional ballet dancer Tsukamoto Nami (no relation) playing Ryoko with a finely balanced combination of strength, sensitivity and vitality. Even the smaller roles – Kishibe Ittoku as pathology professor Dr. Kashiwabuchi, Kuminura Jun as Ryoko's father – are played with impressive naturalism.

Despite the film's deceptively unhurried pace, Tsukamoto packs in a wealth of subtextual storytelling into even the smallest details – the photo of Ikumi on the shrine in her parents' house, for example, is not the traditional happy portrait, but one of mournful sadness, reflecting perhaps a girl caught between two worlds, parted from this one but denied access to the next by her lack of burial rites. And considering the film's grisly subject matter and potential for shock value (especially given the explicit body horror of Tsukamoto's earlier films), there is a restraint shown here that is both surprising and appropriate to the ultimately optimistic thrust of the story. The body may be destroyed, but in the process it opens a path to the discovery of the soul.

the DVDs

The two DVDs under comparison here are the Tartan UK region 2 PAL single disc and the Happinet Japanese region 2 NTSC 2-disc special edition. It should be noted that the Happinet release features English subtitles for the main feature only, which for most UK viewers will render most of the extra features at least partially bemusing. I've had the Japanese DVD for about six months now and have held off on a review in the hope that a UK or US release would be announced. When it was I had somehow convinced myself that the UK version would be considerably inferior to the Japanese release. Well shame on me. The news, happily, is very good.

sound and vision

Both discs sport what appears to be the very same anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer, though obviously the Japanese Happinet disc is NTSC and the UK Tartan disc is PAL. Colour, sharpness, contrast and black levels are all excellent on both releases, and yes, the Tartan disc has a true PAL transfer.

The audio options are also identical on both discs, with Japanese stereo 2.0, 5.1 surround and DTS surround. The stereo track is decent enough, but the 5.1 and especially DTS tracks are the only way to go, having a very strong dynamic range and making great use of the surrounds and LFE channel, especially during Tsukamoto's trademark industrial rumbles and a startling moment when Hiroshi, standing in the street, aurally recalls his car crash.

It should be noted that you cannot switch between audio tracks on the fly on the Tartan disc – this can only be done on the Setup menu.

extra features

Again I was expecting only minor extras on the UK release and again I was to be proved happily wrong. The Japanese Happinet 2-disc edition is very well featured, but Tartan have done well by licensing many of the best features from that set for inclusion on their own release, with the additional bonus that on Tartan's disc they have optional English subtitles.


Japanese 2-disc Special Edition (Happinet)

On disc 1 there are three extra features, the most notable one being an Audio Commentary with director Tsukamoto Shinya and Kojima Hideo, the man behind the legendary Metal Gear Solid video games and someone Tsukamoto is clearly friends with and whose work he admires. There's a fair amount of discussion here about what is happening on screen, but Tsukamoto supplies some interesting background on the preparation for the shoot (attending real autopsies, discussions with pathologists), the structure and look of particular scenes, and how he planned specific shots. His desire for a level of realism led to him asking a real pathologist to write the introductory speech given to the students at the start of their first dissection class. He also, tellingly, admits that he knew he was breaking a taboo, and says that "I mustn't do it, so I must do it." It is unfortunate that this feature is not subtitled in English, as it would certainly be of considerable interest to all Tsukamoto fans.

Trailers and TV Spots has the Teaser Trailer (0:59), the Theatrical Trailer (1:38) and a TV Spot (0:18). The theatrical trailer is very similar in structure to the teaser, though includes more footage and really plays on the inclusion of the song Bluebird by Cocco.

Finally on disc 1 there is Staff & Cast, which has short biographies for Tsukamoto Shinya, Cocco, Oda Takashi, Asano Tadanobu, Tsukamoto Nami and Kiki, all in Japanese only, I'm afraid.

Disc 2 has to be the most unusual-looking DVD I have in my collection, being completely transparent, save for a couple of translucent graphics, and at first glance looks like one of those protective plastic discs that you find at the top of a CD stack. The extra features are divided into five sections, some of which have subdivisions.

In Production we have Starting 'Vital' (11:06), which is essentially an interview with Tsukamoto (in one of the dingiest corners the camera operator could presumably find) in which he talks about the visual similarity between the microscopic world and images of outer space and how this led to him writing Vital (or as he first called it 'Dissection Project'), as well as issues of life and death, his own fascination with bodies and dissection, the casting of Asano in a role he might once have taken himself, and his plans for future film themes.

Making 'Vital' (10:27) is built around an interview with Oda Hisashi, the man responsible for creating all of the fake body parts for the autopsy scenes and head of the film's 'body modelling' crew. He talks about the process of creating these key props and their relationship to real bodies and dissections he observed in the course of research, which is cut with footage of the casting and building of the fake corpses and their constituent parts. For anyone not involved in this very specialised area of the industry, this is fascinating viewing.

Playing in 'Vital' (18:46) combines an edited-down video diary of the shoot in Okinawa with an interview with Tsukamoto in the same dark corner as the Starting 'Vital' featurette. This is an essential inclusion for the footage of Tsukamoto at work and the chance to see the actors on sets and locations before the film has been colour timed and the soundtrack mixed. A large proportion of the footage is of the hospital dissection class location, which is actually a real hospital and the one in which Asano Tadanobu was (co-incidentally) born. There are also a couple of nice offbeat moments, not least Asano's 30th birthday party, and the opening walk through greenery along a little known path and down to a deserted beach to scout the location REALLY brought back some memories for me (as it would for my then director, eh Camus?)

The second section, Hiroshi's Sketch, is a gallery of the sketches made by Hiroshi in the film (which are fabulous), plus a few film stills of the character. It would be nice to see the real artist (Kumazawa-san from the film's 'body modelling' crew) credited here.

Distribution has two subsections, 'Vital' in Venice (10:47), also an edited down video diary of the director and three stars at the Venice film festival. Tsukamoto expresses his love for Venice and calls Italy his second home (Happinet's Snake of June disc also contained footage of the director at the Venice Film Festival), all participate in photo shoots, the girls take tourist pictures and Asano looks effortlessly cool throughout. Festival director Marco Muller turns out to be a huge Tsukamoto fan and even has images from Vital as wallpaper on his mobile phone. It's rather nice that Tsukamoto gets cheered before the screening. A very engaging inclusion.

'Vital' in Tokyo (2:48) has Tsukamoto and his three stars doing a brief Q&A after a screening at K's cinema in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo (possibly the liveliest area in the city, in case you ever get to visit). This is of interest, but supplies little that is not covered in more detail elsewhere.

The third section, Gallery, also has two subsections. Ad & Publicity Materials is exactly what you'd expect, while Products includes 3 Vital T-shirts that are not quite as cool as they sound.

Finally we have an audio recording of Bluebird by Cocco (6:20), the song used over the film's closing credits.


UK single disc edition (Tartan)

Although many of the Happinet extras have been ported over to this Tartan release, it is, somewhat disappointingly, missing the Tsukamoto/Kojima commentary, though in its place we do have a Commentary by Midnight Eye's Tom Mes, whose recent book Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto makes him probably the foremost Western writer on the director's work. Although 'expert' commentaries can be a little dry, especially when compared to those by the filmmakers themselves, Mes not only knows his Tsukamoto, he was on set for part of the shoot, enabling him mix the analytical with the anecdotal to often engaging effect. As an avid fan of the both Tsukamoto's films and Japan and its culture, much of the information delivered on the film and its cultural references were not new to me, but it is enjoyably presented and many will find it both both interesting and enlightening.

With the Music Video (6:23) for Cocco's Bluebird, Tartan have the edge over Happinet, who only have this as an audio track. Not that this matters much – the merits of the song are very much a matter of taste and the video consists of a largely uninspiring montage of extracts from the film.

Venice Premiere Footage (10:45) is exactly the same featurette that can be found on the Happinet disc as 'Vital' in Venice, but with the bonus of English subtitles for dialogue and the on-screen (Japanese) titles.

The Shinya Tsukamoto Interview is also from the Happinet disc (where it was called Starting 'Vital'), and unlike the feature does appear to undergone NTSC to PAL conversion and suffered accordingly, in the main because the original wasn't exactly sparkling quality.

Cast & Crew Q&A (2:46) is the 'Vital' in Tokyo extra from the Happinet disc.

Behind the Scenes (18:45) is a port of the Playing in 'Vital' extra on the Happinet disc, and a crucial inclusion.

Making the Props (10:26) is also lifted from the Happinet disc, where it was titled Making 'Vital'.

summary

Well how about that. Although excellent in its own right, the Happinet 2-disc edition of Vital works best in its native Japan, as the lack of subtitles on the extra features does narrow their appeal for non-Japanese speakers, despite some still fascinating footage contained within. It will also cost you an arm and a leg to import. Normally I'd expect to be still recommending it on the basis of its picture and sound quality, but for UK viewers Tartan have really hit gold with a transfer of equal quality and, if you want to be picky, slightly superior resolution, given that it is PAL rather than NTSC. But the icing on the cake is that Tartan have also included most of the best extras from the Happinet release and widened their appeal through the inclusion of English subtitle translations. My only gripe at all is that the Tsukamoto / Kojima commentary did not also make the transition, but Tom Mes does a reasonable stand in.

The film itself represents another triumph for one of modern cinema's most distinctive talents. He may be working at a calmer pace, but what has emerged is a film that is thoughtful, intelligent, imaginative, spiritual and even in places beautiful. It may not have the instant hook of his more kinetic works, but give it a couple of viewings and you'll begin to appreciate just how layered a film this is. In every sense, Vital lives up to the claim of its enigmatic title. Highly recommended.



* The character of Hiroshi was based in part on Leonardo da Vinci, whom Tsukamoto himself is fascinated by.

** If you link this sudden decision to Hiroshi's almost supernatural calling to the medical book that leads him back into medicine, it can be read as death-bed spiritual belief in a way in which the two might once again come into contact, itself suggesting that it was no chance thing that Ryoko ended up on Hiroshi's dissecting table.

Vital

Japan 2004
85 mins
director
Tsukamoto Shinya
starring
Asano Tadanobu
Tsukamoto Nami
Kiki
Kushida Kazuyoshi
Lily

DVD details
region 2 Japan
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
Japanese
extras
Director's commentary
Trailers and TV spots
Biographies
Starting Vital featurette
Making Vital featurette
Playing in Vital featurette
Sketch gallery
Vital in Venice featurette
Vital in Tokyo featurette
Galleries
Song
distributor
Happinet

region 2 UK
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Tom Mes commentary
Music video
Venice premiere footage
Interview with director
Cast and crew Q&A
Behind the scenes featurette
Making the props featurette
distributor
Tartan
release date
20 February 2006
review posted
1 April 2006

related reviews
Tesuo: The Iron Man & Tetsuo II: Body Hammer
[Blu-ray review]
Tokyo Fist
[DVD review]
Tokyo Fist
[Blu-ray review]
Bullet Ballet
[DVD review]
Bullet Ballet
[Blu-ray review]
Soseiji / Gemini
[DVD review]
A Snake of June
[DVD review]
A Snake of June
[Blu-ray review]
Haze [DVD review]
Kotoko
[DVD review]

See all of Slarek's reviews