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I discovered Shinya Tsukamoto in the Fall of 93 with a pirate VHS copy of Tetsuo 1, The Iron Man (1988). It was grainy, unsubtitled, and completely weird. I can't say i enjoyed it, not just because of the poor quality of the tape, but the movie just didn't ring with me. Credited as the first cyber-punk film, the film was a visual and sonic clash over the backdrop of a man transforming into an iron mess in what could be best described as a metal-fetishist tale. I re-watched it a few years ago, and i can't say that i liked it then either. But there was something for sure: it was strange, visionary and unique. I liked that very much even if i didn't like the film per se. For sure, i wanted to see more from that man, and see what he could pull together with more money, and more maturity. Well, since his first efforts in the mid to late 80's, the man has shown incredible growth.
In 1998, Bullet Ballet (1998) marked a step up in his work. It featured a man (Tsukamoto himself in the main role) whose girlfriend commits suicide with a gun she acquired from some shady characters from the underworld. Taken by an obsession over that gun and how it ended up in the hands of his girlfriend, the character scours Tokyo to try to get himself a gun too. Is it to kill himself? Is it to kill the man who allegedly got his girlfriend her gun? In that film, the style was undeniably Tsukamoto, and completely reminiscent of Tetsuo. However, it was less chaotic and more approachable, in some way.
Then in 2002, Snake Of June, A (2002) came out and marked (in my humble opinion) another turning point. The movie still featured themes that are dear to him, and a typically Japanese perversion, but it was a detailed portrayal of a woman who breaks free from bourgeois sexual repression with the help of a man who blackmails her into performing various sexual acts in semi-public environments. The film was absolutely gorgeous, mysterious, featuring an incredible actress who, even if she wasn't very beautiful (my taste only), exuded sexuality and sensuality like i have rarely seen on screen. The film was wonderful and completely engrossing to me, even if i admit its subject matter might push the boundaries in more conservative people for sure. But behind the sexual perversion of this film laid a genuine appreciation and love for the characters, an empathy that evolved as a key to the emotional resolution.
Then, tonight, i saw Vital (2004) and was blown away. Again. Tsukamoto has outdone himself narratively, visually, and sonically, in one of his most approachable film yet. The film is gorgeous, deeply poetic and sweet, even in its most macabre moments, and features a rich and hypnotic soundtrack.
After a tragic accident where his girlfriend died, Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano) is recovering in the hospital. Having lost his memory, he is starting life anew. A medical student who was about to drop out, he is encouraged by his parents to re-start his studies. Having forgotten why he wanted to quit (we never quite know why either), and being fascinated by his old notebooks, he decides to give it a go again. Reserved, withdrawn, unsure himself whether he is alive or not, constantly pinching himself, or making sounds with his mouth when alone, he aces all his courses. When time comes to take his first dissection class, fate has it that his subject is his former girlfriend, who gave her body to science before she died. Little by little, as he peals layers of skin and flesh off the body, Hiroshi starts to remember his past, or more precisely, his relationship with that girl that was at the same time sweet and hopeful, yet desperate and troublesome. This all seems like an ephemeral dream to him, and it's the physicality of his girlfriend's body, and his personal dive into her detailed medical anatomy, that brings back in him a sense of being alive.
The film definitely has a macabre side to it, but it's not in your face and most of the visuals that one could classify as horrific are actually very subdued. The subject matter may be strange and macabre, but the film is quite tame. Again, what is amazing is how Tsukamoto infuses the story with very human and sweet elements that make the whole film very endearing and its characters unforgettable. It helps that he also does the cinematography, editing and overall art direction: the film is very cohesive in all its dimensions. The cinematography is gorgeous and although much more mainstream than his previous efforts, retains a unique quality. The soundtrack is also fantastic, with lush soundscapes, and distinctly memorable music. Add to that impeccables performances from veteran Japanese actors, and wunderkind Tadanobu Asano (often called the Johnny Depp of Japanese cinema), and this film is a total experience that flies by so fast, clocking at just 80mn.
To quote the director: "For me, human physical existence seems to be fading. Our physical selves are growing weak as our brains are growing lager. Everybody dies one day. It's reality. If we don't fear death, then the world becomes somehow ambiguous as to whether it's reality or a dream. We have become used to virtual reality so we tend to forget that we are mortal. Living becomes like a dream. I believe it's because we don't often see dead bodies in real life anymore. But seeing dead bodies teaches you that we will all die someday. then only can you realize that you are alive. I wanted to make a film that conveyed that." He succeeded.
All in all, this is a beautiful film that in spite of its subject matte, made me smile and happy to be alive. I think this is a film i may actually even show my parents, and they may actually like it :) With 30 films in the last 20 years as an actor, and 13 as a director/writer, Tsukamoto is a prolific and unique voice in modern cinema. His films tend to be quite experimental, but every once in a while, he manages to create a truly approachable film (with a few caveats of course) that allow you to understand him better and recognize his talent as a writer and a director. If you can go beyond the immediate provocative subject matter, you'll find a genuine sweetness and love for the characters that is quite unique.
- Laurent Hasson