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VITAL
2004
Written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto
86 Minutes
Rated R for some aberrant sexual behavior, disturbing images and brief language.

I really, really wanted this to be a gold star movie, but unfortunately Tsukamoto seems to be a filmmaker's filmmaker and I doubt this one would go over well with a more conventional audience used to more conventional approaches to storytelling. That's a shame, too, because Tsukamoto's Vital is one of the most beautiful meditations on love, life, and death that I've ever seen.

The central plot will seem fairly formula for a garden variety drama: a man survives a car accident in which his girlfriend perished, but he has amnesia. Over the course of the film, he gradually begins to regain his memory at the same time he's being romanced by a classmate, tearing him between his new lease on life and his old memories of the woman he loved. Spelled out like that, it's marginally compelling.

Except that Shinya Tsukamoto is responsible for motherfucking Tetsuo: The Iron Man. The only work of his that I've seen that I didn't like was Hiruko the Goblin, but Tetsuo, A Snake of June, and Nightmare Detective all had a lot to recommend them, and Vital is undoubtedly one of his best. I initially wanted to lump him in with Sion Sono in occupying that middle space between David Cronenberg and David Lynch, but letting the film properly stew has caused me to compare him more to Stanley Kubrick than anyone else, having watched A Clockwork Orange recently. He has Kubrick's precision, his understanding of negative space in the frame, and maximal use of the audio track.

The difference is that Kubrick's style is so methodical and meticulous that it feels mechanical and inhuman, lacking a human voice, lacking real feeling. This serves him fairly well for certain projects, but creates a detachment for the viewer. Tsukamoto is, in my opinion, a superior director because of how well he communicates feeling, at least in this film. Any other director could've turned this into something more rote, a procedural sort of drama that touches the audience only in the most basic ways. Something with an excessive amount of dialogue about love and life and what have you.

Vital is largely absent of dialogue, with the overwhelming majority of it pruned precisely to exactly what it needs to be. Instead, Tsukamoto gets his points and feelings across through actions, through visuals, through sound, making the most of the medium. He doesn't state loneliness or sadness, but he infers it and strongly suggests it in some alarming visual and auditory collages, and in this way I think he connects a lot better with the receptive viewer. The abstractions he produces, along with the silence of his characters and the subtlety of the shooting around their actions, communicate these feelings better than words ever could. The main character, Hiroshi, seldom speaks, but something about him makes you care as the film progresses. You live inside his mind as his memories begin to emerge and his feelings are thrown to chaos.

Unfortunately, this kind of precise and skilled use of the language of film more or less guarantees an average viewer will become bored with it. There's an art that can easily go unappreciated by someone who isn't aware of the precision and craft being employed by the filmmaker, and if you don't enter the viewing with these things in mind - that this is not a mainstream filmmaker but the kind of filmmaker that other filmmakers study - you will find yourself losing interest.

If you can take the time to fully engage yourself with the film, with its construction and with the themes and ideas it's communicating, however, you may find yourself having a fairly profound experience, as the style communicates in a much deeper fashion than a conventional film ever could.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.