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Vital (DVD)

VitalStarring Tadanobu Asano, Nami Tsukamoto, Kiki, Kazuyoshi Kushida

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto

Released by Tartan Films


With Vital there’s a sense that Shinya Tsukamoto has reached the end of his creative cycle – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Having long focused on body horror, it now seems like he’s studied his subject from every possible angle, from birth and evolution (the Tetsuo films) to violence (Gemini) to sex (A Snake of June). This time Tsukamoto cuts straight to the root of his subject matter, but something unexpected happens in the process: He delves into the flesh and emerges as an artist reborn. It’s the end of an era and the beginning of something new for the cult filmmaker.

The great Tadanobu Asano stars as Hiroshi, an amnesiac who awakes following a car crash that claimed the life of his girlfriend, Ryoko and left him in a coma. Lost and desensitized to the world around him, he returns to life as a medical student where his obsession manifests in the form of a female cadaver. As Hiroshi begins to dissect the corpse, he experiences haunting visions of life with Ryoko that take him on a journey through his own subconcious.

With this premise, you’d expect the director to kick into high gear with his usual frenzy of flesh and surrealism, but everything in Vital is incredibly restrained – whether it’s the moody photography, the ambient score, or Asano’s creepy, understated performance.

Tsukamoto, an accomplished actor, has appeared in all his films (as well as starring in Takashi Shimizu’s excellent Marebito) but this time he stays entirely behind the camera, allowing Asano to act as the catalyst for his musings on human existence. Taking us inside the world of his protaganist, the director weaves together a series of dreams, nightmares, and cold reality in a way that is difficult to sort out.

But as the film progresses and we see the flesh come apart (both literaly and figuratively), everything begins to make sense and Tsukamoto arrives at a deep spiritual conclusion – one that seems to be the culmination of his life’s work. When all is said and done, you would be hard-pressed to call Vital straight-up horror, but only because it’s a film that defies a single label.

Tartan Films continues its dedication to all things Tsukamoto and this is one of the most impressive releases in their Asia Extreme line-up. Not only does the DVD boast pristine picture and sound, there are a host of special features, including behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Tsukamoto, as well as a video diary chronicling the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Iron Man (review) author Tom Mes contributes a full-length commentary, and if you can get past his droning voice, his personal accounts from the set make this an informative talk. Rounding out the disc are trailers, a music video, and an extremely cool “FX featurette” that explores the making of the film’s cadavers.

Filled with equal parts wonder and dread, Vital is a thoughtful postscript to Tsukamoto’s obsession with the human body and suggests that there is indeed hope amidst the horror of our own mortality.

4 out of 5

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Steve Barton

You're such an inspiration for the ways that I will never, ever choose to be.