Dir/scr/cine/prod des/ed:Shinya Tsukamoto. Japan. 2004. 86mins.

Tsukamoto is one of those directors whose name on the opening credits is alwaysgreeted with applause by festival junkies. A one-man band who hates to delegateany of the headline technical jobs, Tsukamoto will probably never break out ofthe cult ghetto, unlike his Japanese compatriots, Takeshi Kitano and TakashiMiike. But that's okay, because, as Vital demonstrates, Tsukamoto isvaluable precisely because of his uncommercial dedication to his ownobsessions.

Still, one senses that, withthe lurch towards a more meditative, arthouse style that began with A SnakeOf June (Venice Special Jury Prize in 2002) and is confirmed in thisreticent tale of memory loss and body dissection, Tsukamoto may be losing hiscore audience, which was first turned onto the director by the manga, sci-fiand heavy metal onslaught of his debut, Tetsuo, and its sequel, TetsuoII: Bodyhammer.

The obsession that comes tothe fore in Vital is the human body and its transformations - a themewhich is central to Tsuakamoto's work, but which he has previously explored inmore of a fantasy vein. Here, in Tsukamoto's most narrative, reality-groundedfilm, it is the body after death that interests the director - the body laid out,cut open and explored on the dissecting table.

This is not one for thosewho turn pale at the sight of scalpels and internal organs; although there werenone of the fainting fits provoked by Kim Ki-Duk's The Isle a few yearsback, there were plenty of walk-outs among the Venice punters when the film gotdown and anatomical.

But Vital is not acrudely necrographic movie; rather an absorbing meditation on life and death,on the way the exact science of anatomy describes the body while failing toaccount for slippery concepts like memory, soul, and conscience.

Leading Japanese actor andthinking girl's pin-up Tadanobu Asano (increasingly on view in pan-Asianarthouse fare, from Last Life In The Universe to Cafe Lumiere)plays Hiroshi, a young man who wakes up in hospital after a car accident, withsevere memory loss.

Rediscovering, to hisparents' delight, an early interest in medicine, Hiroshi enrols in medicalschool, where he meets Ikumi (Japanese fashion model Kiki), a model student wholikes to strangle her boyfriends during sex. As Hiroshi's memory graduallyreturns, he has visions of a girl - and realises, first, that she is hisgirlfriend Ryoko (ballerina Nami Tsukamoto - no relation to the director), whodied next to him in the car crash, and second, that it is her body that he hasbeen assigned to cut up in his university dissection class.

Tsukamoto is as visuallyinventive as ever, alternating the cold light of the dissecting theatre withthe colourful dreamscape of memory, and using sound - the squelch of soft bodytissue, the scrape of a sketching pencil - to unsettle and rack up the tension.

Chu Ichikawa's scorecooperates, paring things back to a series of long, held, overlain notes. Justenough narrative satisfaction is given for us to run with the long,impressionistic passages of screen poetry in between.

An austere and not entirelyaccessible film, Vital nevertheless has a thematic and visual resonancethat brands an after-image on our minds well after the end credits have stoppedrolling.

Prod co: Kaijyu Theater
Int'l sales:
Gold View Co
Shinya Tsukamoto,Shin-Ichi Kawahara, Keiko Kusakabe, Koichi Kusakabe, Kiyo Joo
Chu Ishikawa
Main cast:
Tadanobu Asano, NamiTsukamoto, Kiki