TIFF Report: Vital
The Toronto Film Festival is quickly coming to an end but there are still some quality films to be had. Case in point: Shinya Tsukamoto's Vital. Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man is one of the most influential and extreme pieces of experimental film to come out of Japan - or just about anywhere, really - in past years but it was his Bullet Ballet that really convinced me this was a man to watch, someone with important things to say about humanity. Last year's Snake of June is a flat out masterpiece that cemented Tsukamoto's reputation as a master film maker, at least in my mind, so I was more than a little excited to hear that he had a new film coming starring Tadanobu Asano - one of my very favorite actors in the world. Tonight was my chance to see that film and I did not leave disappointed.
In Vital Asano stars as Hiroshi Takagi, a young man who has just regained consciousness after slipping into a coma after a horrible car accident which claimed the life of Ryoko, his girlfriend. Takagi awakes with no memory of any sort: not of the accident, not of his family, not of his girlfriend. His parents, both doctors, take him home where he discovers a box full of old medical textbooks and he subsequently enrolls in medical school.
Through the first third of the film Takagi is a shell of a man, staring vacantly into space and seldom, if ever speaking to anyone. He shows no interest in any of his classmates - even the attractive young woman who slowly becomes obsessed with him - and lives alone in a squalid apartment. The first glimmer of life appears when Takagi begins his dissection class and he begins to explore the corpse of a young woman with a tattoo on her arm, a tattoo which slowly begins to dislodge fragments of Takagi's memories. He eventually comes to realize that the corpse he is dissecting is none other than Ryoko, his former girlfriend.
What you would expect to be a repulsive event for Takagi actually holds a strange attraction to him. As he continues to work more of his past returns and he grows increasingly protective of Ryoko's corpse. Eventually he begins having waking dreams of his lover. Are they memories? Fantasies? Or has he tapped into some sort of supernatural reality in which he can interact with Ryoko's spirit? Takagi becomes increasingly distant from reality as he pursues Ryoko beyond death.
With Vital Tsukamoto has abandoned the technological fixation that marks all of his earlier self-authored work in favor of a methodical study of grieving. He balances his experimental urges with a deeply human story anchored by yet another strong performance by the amazingly versatile Asano. The support cast is universally strong, particularly Ryoko's grieving parents, and Tsukamoto gives them all a chance to shine. The film work is strong - and in full color, a change from Tsukamoto's normal monochrome - with experimental flourishes throughout to match the tone and tenor of the film's individual moments. I would still have to say that Snake of June stands as Tsukamoto's master work but Vital is certainly not far behind. An important work from an important film maker.