When Shinya Tsukamoto released his first feature, “Tetsuo,” in 1989, many critics compared the crazed black-and-white speed dream about the merger of man and metal to the work of David Lynch. This critic, though, couldn’t see it: Lynch is an ironist and nostalgist, Tsukamoto is neither. In fact, he is not like anyone — a mark of distinction in a country where many directors pepper their work with references to revered senpai, foreign or domestic. (Admittedly, he does have his influences, including the Ultraman series.)
Tsukamoto takes the rage and emptiness of modern urban life to their natural conclusions — violence, murder, psychosis. He is the poet of fists, bullets and drills shattering flesh, the dreamer of ultimate nightmares that are also ultimate fulfillments. His heroes not only secretly (or not so secretly) desire degradation and annihilation — they revel in it. In “Tetsuo” the faces of two enemies conjoined in a bizarre ambulant junk pile are suffused with mad glee. They are free at last from the pain of being human.
He would seem a natural for the now-trendy genre of horror, but unlike Hideo Nakata (“Ringu”) and Takashi Shimizu (“Juon”), who made suitably scary movies in Japan, then dutifully trooped off to Hollywood to turn out more of the same, Tsukamoto resists genre conventions. He made genuflections toward the mainstream in “Yokai Hunter — Hiruko (Hiruko the Goblin)” (1990) and “Soseji (Gemini)” (1999), but remains an apostate to the religion of the box office.
His latest film, “Vital,” is again Tsukamoto being Tsukamoto. The result of his long fascination with the inner workings of the human body, which included two months as an observer in a university anatomy class, this film is another entry in a cinematic spiritual diary kept by a man who can see the beauty as well as the beastliness of human life. Now well into his forties, Tsukamoto depicts a romantic idyll at a tropical beach and a joyous solo dance, complete with stop-motion balletic leaps, in his latest work. So is the cyber-punk Prince of Darkness going soft?
Um — no, unless your definition of “soft” includes shots of cadavers being ripped open like so many sides of beef or sex scenes that consist of two people strangling each other to the point of asphyxiation — or ecstasy.
The film’s Tsukamoto surrogate is Hiroshi Takagi (Tadanobu Asano), a medical student who survives a car wreck that kills his lover, Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto) — but leaves him with no memory, even of his worried parents (Kazuyoshi Kushida and Lily) or, for that matter, of himself. His only anchor to a world gone adrift are the old anatomy texts in his closet. There he finds meaning — and hints of a past. Enrolling in medical school, he takes the anatomy class required for second-year students, which involves cutting open cadavers.
He and his team are assigned the corpse of a young woman with a blue tattoo on her arm and a bag over her head. She is thus anonymous — but to Hiroshi disturbingly individual. He throws himself into dissecting her with a passion that borders on obsession. He also stirs the curiosity of Ikumi (Kiki), a fellow student who looks, with her squarely cut straight black hair and theatrical air of doom, as though she has wandered in from a beatnik coffee shop, circa 1960, with a volume of Baudelaire under her arm.
Like Hiroshi, she is also inadvertently responsible for a death, that of a middle-aged lover (Riju Go) whom she toyed with like a cat mauling a contemptibly weak-minded mouse. Hiroshi, however, is made of stranger, more elusive stuff. When he and Ikumi enjoy the delights of mutual strangulation, he goes off into another dimension, where Ryoko still lives, dances, loves. Are these flashbacks of real events? Or are they fantasies that he — or possibly Ryoko — has created to symbolize a future that never was? They keep growing longer and more explicit, and confused and upset, Hiroshi goes to Ryoko’s parents (Jun Kunimura and Hana Kino) to find answers and perhaps absolution.
As usual, Tsukamoto presents this contemporary gothic material without a hint of irony — though the performances of his two death-fixated lovers border on self parody. Kiki, a model with little acting experience, crosses over, while Asano, who has been playing outwardly blank but inwardly seething characters for years, knows exactly where to draw the line. His problem is more one of lighting — though barely past 30 and still a reasonable facsimile of the rock singer he once was, he looks, in certain underlit scenes, as though he is pushing a death-warmed-over 40; in character perhaps — but not the most likely second-year medical student.
In his scenes with Nami Tsukamoto, a professional ballerina who is also an acting neophyte, Asano finally gets to bask in the sun — and lighten up. There is a feeling of paradise lost — or rather of a dream more real than reality — new to this director’s work. Though much of “Vital” may be darkly morbid (or wincingly gruesome), its central message is one of hope: A scalpel can not only expose the secrets of the flesh but awaken the spirit — in the memory, if not on the autopsy table.