Every truly great movie I have ever seen has, in some way, been about the human face. Bergman considered the human face to be the one true subject of all cinema, and made dozens of films about that one subject. Even a film as removed from individual people as Koyaanisqatsi has many shots where we simply stare at other people and realize there is nothing quite as alien as another person.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Vital is about life and death, but also the serene face of Tadanobu Asano, one of Japan’s most remarkable living actors because he suggests more when holding back than most people do when emoting. His face in this movie is a mask behind which a great abyss waits, and there are moments where he prods at his own face as if wanting to pull it off. Is there anything in there?
Asano plays Hiroshi, a young man who wakes up with no memory of his life after a car accident. His parents are patient and gentle, and prod him towards something that meant a great deal to him before the crash — a burgeoning interest in medicine. He enrolls in medical school and buries himself in his studies, not as a way of escaping his past but perhaps as a way of rediscovering it by proxy. One semester he sits down with a group of other students to dissect human cadavers, and discovers something hauntingly familiar about the corpse he’s about to dismantle. This was Ryoko, a girl he once loved.
Hiroshi's haunted by disquieting half-memories that poke through his amnesia,
courtesy of an accident that took the life of a girl he loved as well.
They were close before the accident, but not in a healthy way. She was suicidal, it seems, and her father was convinced that Hiroshi had some hand in her death. Worse, she was an occupant in the car with Hiroshi when he crashed, and lingered for some time before finally dying. To her father’s astonishment, she requested that her body be donated to science — and now the sight of her is bringing back memories of their life together that may not have been entirely true. Did they indeed dance on the shore one day, or is that just something he constructed to remember something beautiful about her when there was so much about her that was tormented and painful?
Then there is Izumi (Nami Tsukamoto), a fellow medical student who latches onto Hiroshi with astounding sexual ferocity. She is disgusted to discover that she is essentially competing with a corpse, and does her damndest to turn Hiroshi’s attention back to her — even engaging on more than one occasion in games of mutual autoerotic asphyxiation, the exact same sort of thing that Hiroshi did with the dead girl once. Most of Tsukamoto’s films are about some kind of jealous sexual triangle; usually it’s two men competing for a woman, but here it’s two women competing for a man, and one of the women exists only as memory — and not a very competently-recalled one at that.
Tsukamoto's movies often involve a violent triangle: here, it's two women
— one alive, one dead — in pursuit of the same man.
The implications of all of this are fascinating and frightening, and it’s to Tsukamoto’s credit that he’s able to bring it to seething life onscreen. The only Western filmmaker remotely like him in terms of both subject matter and approach is David Cronenberg: he’s obsessed with the flesh, with the way the human body can be like a machine (or vice versa), and with the way we form attachments with each other that satisfy us but disgust others. In this film he’s preoccupied with the body as the vessel for the spirit: At what point does a living human body become a dead one, and where does everything that we knew as the other person go? If it exists at all after death, this film seems to say, it only exists in what is left behind for others until they, too, die.
I always like how Tsukamoto visualizes the conflicts in his films. In Tetsuo, he was not afraid of throwing every bit of visual frenzy he could think up at the screen. Here, as in A Snake of June, he fills the screen with baroque, grotesque images that suggest endless inner turmoil. Hiroshi dreams again and again of a row of roaring smokestacks, and his gloomy, stained surroundings close in around him like the walls of a mausoleum. Many scenes are shown in closeup with a telephoto lens and with a trembling handheld camera, one of Tsukamoto’s signature ways of framing a shot. It puts us uncomfortably close to everyone, and in a movie about the presence of bodies (both living and not) it fits all the more.
If memory is all that we are after death, the movie argues,
shouldn't that be defended and cherished any way we can?
Asano is one of a small group of actors I’m habitually drawn to in Japanese films. Two others are here as well: Jun Kunimura (the rival Buddhist monk in Gojoe), as Ryoko’s tormented father, and Ittoku Kishibe (also Gojoe, and Violent Cop and Geroppa! as well) as Hiroshi’s gloomy-voiced instructor. Kunimura has one scene that is among the very best I have seen in a Japanese film, where he sits in his room and talks in a quiet, horrified way about the last day of his girl’s life — during which we learn, obliquely, that his wife is now dead as well, in a shot that is so carefully assembled it looks like a happy accident. Kishibe’s range is tightly constrained, but he provides the underpinning for many scenes (like the last respects to the dead by the students) with nothing more than the rumbling basso of his voice.
Japan has long held a deep cultural connection with how to deal with the dead. The dead are not people we visit in the cemetery, but live on with us in our homes; we can’t ignore them simply because they’re not here in the flesh anymore. There’s a remarkable scene where the dissection class reassembles the corpses and provides them with everything they will need in the next life, from their kimono to their sandals. This is not a film about the dead, of course, but about the living — how they choose to accept or ignore death, and how that can be either ennobling or destructive. Even if all our lives are ultimately limited, limited enough that we end up as nothing more than something to be burned or buried, we must defend the best things that come of it even if they are nothing more than memories. There may not be anything else.