Do you believe that you will die? Oh, yes, “Man is mortal. I am a man, consequently....” No, not that; I know that; you know it. But I ask: has it ever happened that you actually believed it? Believed definitely, believed not with your reason but with your body, that you actually felt that some day those fingers which now hold this page, will become yellow, icy?... No, of course you cannot believe this. That is why you have not jumped from the tenth floor to the pavement before now, that is why you eat, turn over these pages, shave, smile, write.
-- Evgeny Zamyatin, WE
Most movies, when they deal with death, either don't really deal with it at all (action movies: somebody's shot and they fall over) or deal with it fetishistically (horror movies: how cleverly can we kill someone?) Shinya Tsukamoto's Vital is actually about death: how we deal with it, how we process it, how we confront the reality of someone close to us no longer being alive, and how we drive all of that back into some awareness of our own mortality.
Back from the dead
On awakening in the hospital, Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano) remembers nothing. His father and mother, ever patient and kind, try to help this twenty-somethingish young man recall his former life by bringing him back to his old room and letting him rummage about in his belongings. Apparently there was a time when he considered entering medical school, but shelved the idea. But the sight of the anatomy and dissection textbooks packed away in his closet jog something — not just a memory, but a longing.
Hiroshi re-enrolls in medical school and quickly rises to the top of his class. He also becomes the target of fascination by another star student, a girl named Ikumi (Kiki), outwardly self-possessed and confident, but burning inwardly with something she seems to think she can only find in Hiroshi. And maybe also burning with something dangerous: she breaks off a relationship with one of the professors to turn towards Hiroshi, only to have the other man kill himself. On hearing this news, she quietly turns and walks away. Is she insensitive, or was she just looking for something that even another man's death couldn't give her?
Then comes the dissection lab, where Hiroshi and Ikumi are partnered by the soft-spoken Dr. Kashiwabuchi (Ittoku Kishibe) to work on a human cadaver, a young girl. The sight of the dead body revolts Ikumi, but Hiroshi has an even more disturbing reaction: he recognizes the tattoo on the arm of the cadaver they're dismantling. He knew this girl. She was a girlfriend once, and they were riding together in a car when a truck smashed into them, killing her but leaving him alive.
We see flashbacks to the time they had together, Hiroshi and Ryōko (Nami Tsukamoto). She was wiry, with a dancer's body and movements, and she clung to him the way ivy grips a wall. There was only so much Hiroshi could do for her emotionally; he was like a bystander at the scene of a car wreck. And yet all the same he was drawn to her energy, maybe because so few other people in this world exhibit such a thing.
But Ikumi is one such other person, and it disgusts her to know Hiroshi is growing obsessed with memories (how reliable?) of a girl who isn't even alive anymore. The real thing is in front of him, and he won't take it — no, not even when she literally seizes him by the throat. "What are you chasing a dead woman?" she jeers at him. "What about those still living? What chance do I have against your memories?" Still, as Hiroshi remembers more of his life with Ryōko, by way of what's left of her, he realizes he can only shake off that past by confronting it, and by assuming responsibility for the things his amnesia has conveniently protected him from.
The weight of the life of another
The more I watch Tsukamoto's work, the more I see parallels — good ones, constructive ones — with David Cronenberg's career. Both began as low-budget horror/sf mavericks, quickly mastered those forms and imbued them with great creative fire, and then over time gravitated towards dark dramas with overtones of the extreme. Tsukamoto made that big pivot relatively early, after the blowout SF/horror of the Tetsuo films. Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet, Gemini, A Snake Of June, and Vital are to me all best classified as dramas of the extreme, with no truly fantastic elements. I don't think this means SF and fantasy are forms to be outgrown, only that whatever metaphorical or allegorical qualities Tsukamoto sought from them, he learned to find at least as well, or even better, in things approximating real life.
Tsukamoto shot Vital not so much like a horror movie as Gothic drama, another label that applies readily to many of his films (Gemini and Snake in particular). The medical school Hiroshi attends, and the tiny apartment he moves into to be closer to school, are crumbling wrecks. His own drawings — not just of his dissection studies, but the art he created before his accident — are all heavy pencil lines and brooding thick shapes. But his memories of Ryōko are sunny and bucolic, taking place in a lush seaside paradise where the two of them frolic. The contrast is crucial: those memories look far more appealing than Hiroshi's grotty present, even if the past is also filled with emotional agony — Ryōko's own pain, and Hiroshi's pain for feeling so futile in the face of it.
Hiroshi is not the only one among the living left incomplete and hollowed out by Ryōko's death. Her parents — in particular, her seething father (veteran actor Jun Kunimura), still nursing boundless resentment for Hiroshi, and now doubly resentful for not knowing Ryōko chose to have her body donated to science. But in time he comes to see Hiroshi's goal, to give Ryōko and everyone that was around her (him included) the closure she never received.
The last scenes in the film show how Hiroshi is able to accomplish this, and are masterful in how they understate something that could have been sledgehammered in. After completing his study of Ryōko's cadaver under the guidance of his cool-voiced instructor (another veteran, Ittoku Kishibe), Hiroshi and Ikumi are tasked, like all the others in the class, with restoring the cadaver — replacing its organs, closing its incisions, clothing it. We never see the body; we only see Hiroshi and Ikumi's reactions as they reverently adorn the body with the vestments it needs for its journey into the next world. And we also do not see Hiroshi's face when the coffin enters the crematorium's furnace; his bent back and hanging hair tells us what we need to know.
I was reminded, in a good way, of the equally moving (although explicitly comedic) Japanese film Departures, where an out-of-work cellist takes a job with a mortician and finds a greater reverence than he imagined for both the dead and the living. But the tone here is far more restrained and sobering. When Hiroshi finishes the difficult task of dressing Ryōko's corpse, he then watches, impassive, as his fellow med students horsing around as they hose down the dissection lab. He has learned something they apparently have not, and in a way most of them will never be able to.
None of us like to confront the fact that we're mortal. As Zamyatin noted, we do it so that we can keep functioning. But the opposite of that isn't morbidity, either. It is a living consciousness of how life and death inform each other. By the end of Vital, Hiroshi has realized that consciousness. His debt to the dead has finally been fused with his obligations to the living.