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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Vital
Tartan Video // R // January 24, 2006
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted February 4, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Vital finds Japanese maverick Shinya Tsukamoto continuing to evolve from the kinetic fury of his first films to a more cathartic style. His Cronenbergian themes of the body and its relation to the environment, or the environments relation to a persons physical and emotional state, continues to find new avenues. This time, with Vital, he explores morality and memory, as well as the actual nature of the spirit itself.

Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano- Last Life in the Universe, Distance, Bright Future, Ichi the Killer, Taboo) wakes up in the hospital. He was in a car accident and, as a result, suffers from severe memory loss as well as a loss of any sense of himself and time. He finds out that the wreck was not his fault and that his girlfriend Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto) died in the accident. Through his medical textbooks and anatomy drawings, Hiroshi gathers that he was interested in medicine. Though still feeling a stage disconnect with much of his memory remaining vague, he enrolls in medical school and excels.

Though most of his fellow students regard him as a quiet but smart oddball, Hiroshi catches the eye of Ikumi (Kiki), a lovely but darkly obsessive classmate. The two begin an affair which reawakens Hiroshi's memories of Ryoko. When the class begins to examine cadavers, Hiroshi realizes that the body he is dissecting is that of Ryoko. With each new uncovered layer comes a new memory?, a daydream?, some sort of transportation where Hiroshi is connected to Ryoko again.

Considering the film comes from the mind of a man who brought us a gigantic penis drill phallus in Tetsuo: The Iron Man, it is a tad surprising that Vital is, for the most part, an incredibly gentle film that treats death with the sacred tenderness that most cultures reserve for the bodies of the deceased. Sure, there is some corpse dissection and sexual kink, but the tone of the film is never horrific or extreme. It treats the circumstance with care. Hiroshi seeks counsel from his parents, teacher, and even Ryoko's parents, before deciding that it must be some twist of fate and he was meant to find Ryoko in this way and explore it. And, of course, it Vital isn't claiming any profundity. The film ends without any clear conclusion about where the spirit lies. Instead it settles for the idea that being connected and present while alive is enough to at least let some part of ourselves linger in those that we feel close to while we were living.

Shinya Tsukamoto has remained a fiercely independent director who fits the often inappropriately overused auteur label because his films are independently financed, directed, written, shot, and usually lead acted by Tsukamoto. With Vital he found himself in a different mode than his previous projects: shooting on 35 mm for the first time, shooting with synch sound, on a tighter schedule due to his using a popular actor, and out on location more than his other urban locale films. And, it works wonderfully. While his previous film A Snake of June hinted at his evolution as a film maker (finding a connection between nature and the psyche as opposed to the effect of just an urban environment), Vital really showcases a more gentle and introspective hand. The film is mostly free of his jarring editing and the intentionally rough look that violent films like Tetsuo and Bullet Ballet needed. He freely embraces material that needs a different mood including a more languid pace and accomplishes some really eye-popping cinematography with an almost Malicklike appreciation of nature, be it a weird rock formation in a dilapidated building or the reflection of a rain soaked windowpane on a some wood paneling.

The DVD: Tartan.

Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Since Tartan started their US branch, their releases have been mostly good. Though, you have to watch because they'll slip up here and there with a non-anamorphic or spotty transfer. Luckily, Vital is a gorgeous affair. The transfer is clean, sharp, crisp, and reveals striking details. Color details are snappy with some dazzling hues, including various heavily filtered bits, ranging from warm to cool schemes. Contrast is nice and deep with excellent shadow details. If there are any technical glitches, they must be minor because my eye didnt catch them.

Sound:.DTS, 5.1, or 2.0 Japanese with optional English subtitles. Again, a solid job done here, in fact, perfect. From the opening clamor of industrial noise to the plaintive score, the audio is pretty straightforward but still robust. The atmospheric fx and soundtrack get the most out of the 5.1 and DTS mixes.

Extras: "Making of" Featurette (18:44). Neat little featurette that follows the production with text info (No worries, in japanese but English translated) popping up. Lots of behind the scenes footage of the locations, actors, and filming. — Behind the Scenes: Venice Film Festival Premiere (10:46). Informative purely from a marketing standpoint. Watch Tsukamoto and his three key actors make the rounds out the festival, meeting the press, going to a screening, etcetera. — Interview with Shinya Tsukamoto (11:03).Tsukamoto discusses his basic process, themes behind the film, and how the idea evolved. — Special Effects Featurette (10:20).The films fx artist discusses working with Tsukamoto and creating the various cadavers and body parts used in the film. — Music Video.— Original Trailer, plus more Tartan DVD release trailers.— Commentary by Midnight Eye writer Tom Mes. Usually critical commentaries are pretty middling, one note, and get kinda; dry; however, Mes has a good deal of insight into Tsukamoto because he has closely followed Tsukamoto's career and wrote a book about him, "Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto." Plus, Mes was actually present briefly during the filming of Vital, so he is able to deliver some anecdotes about certain scenes , locations, and the general state of the work environment on the production.

Conclusion: I really liked the film. I like tsukamoto a great deal and really like the direction his films are going in, growing, becoming more substantional. Fans of the surreal and the offbeat should enjoy it. Thankfully the disc is great. The Japanese pressing was done in a barebones edition and an extra-packed, though outrageously expensive limited edition. Tartan gives Region One fans a great release with a decent round of extras and a nice transfer all at a tidy price.

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