Shinya Tsukamoto's Vital and A Snake of June are playing on MUBI in the United States in the double bill The Human Extremes of Shinya Tsukamoto.
Shinya Tsukamoto has explored the full spectrum of human darkness over his four decades of filmmaking, including the raw nihilism of 1989’s Tetsuo: Iron Man, the desperate grief of 1998’s Bullet Ballet, and the paralyzing pacifism of 2018’s Killing, just to name a few select examples. And yet the director is usually only associated with the violence and surrealism of the earlier films, particularly edgelord employee pick Tetsuo. What’s often overlooked by fans is that these earlier films stem from the same fascinations foregrounded in his later, more restrained works like Killing (2018) and Fires on the Plain (2014): abject corporeality amid environments molding us as much as we exist in them, and ontological explorations of breaking through those constraints. Though his films are often brutal, Tsukamoto’s mid-career movies Vital (2004) and Rokugatsu no hebi (A Snake Of June, 2002) showcase another under-appreciated facet of his work—an empathetic humanism and tenderness towards those struggling on screen. A far cry from Tetsuo’s two fused men concluding “our love can destroy this whole fucking world,” these two films explore absence, and what eventually fills those voids.
A vulnerable, naked female body; a mutilated corpse. Normally horror staples, the central subjects (not objects) of A Snake Of June and Vital haven’t a trace of genre exploitation, despite breaking several taboos through their mere existence. By focusing on desire more than lust, Tsukamoto ties eroticism to intimacy in both films. A Snake of June’s Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) fears her own sexuality, repressing it even as the distance between her and her husband Shigehiko (Yûji Kôtari) grows. Opening her mail, she’s terrified to find voyeuristic photos of her privately exploring her fantasies, and shortly after is blackmailed by an unseen caller into enacting those fantasies publicly. It’s a violation motivated by an emotional connection—she saved her blackmailer’s life and in turn, he discovered a newfound purpose in pushing her to live honestly.
Vital is mourning inverted: normally a body disappears while the loved one remains "in our thoughts." Here, the memories are gone but the body is quite present. Amnesic medical student Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano) realizes the body he’s dissecting in his anatomy lab is that of his girlfriend Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto), who died in the car accident that also wiped his own memory. His sudden protectiveness of the corpse drives away everyone but fellow student Ikumi (Kiki), who’s as obsessed with Hiroshi as she is confused by his disinterest in her. The unstoppable force of Ikumi’s driven overachievement smacks into Ryoko’s immovable object of a body—when it comes to the physical reality of what Hiroshi’s dad calls “the doctor’s initiation,” she can’t handle the autopsy. Meanwhile meeting in a liminal space others insist is memory but Hiroshi believes real, he and Ryoko reconnect. Both women’s fixation on Hiroshi isn’t about him as a man but what he offers them—a matching sense of emptiness and drive to exist, and a safe place to express the frustration between the two. Their mutual strangulations with Hiroshi aren’t erotic so much as desperate; both Ikumi and Ryoko long ago lost what Ryoko’s dad calls “the light in her eyes.” Reflecting on the accident that took her life, Ryoko admits to Hiroshi, “I didn’t really want to die.” But living feels meaningless, with Ikumi desperate to cover the fact and Ryoko self-destructing. It’s the kind of death drive A Snake of June’s Rinko works hard to counteract at her suicide prevention hotline job, even as she’s willing to destroy herself to better fit her husband’s ideal.
Tsukamoto’s filmography is filled with emotional triangles that are motivated not by love but by obsession. As seen in Bullet Ballet, Tokyo Fist, and Tetsuo, among others, they’re usually between two men in tense opposition and an increasingly frustrated, desperate woman adjacent to them whose attempts to ameliorate her problem escalate. Vital and A Snake of June each weigh the formula differently. A Snake of June centers the woman, Rinko, with the struggle between her distant husband and voyeur blackmailer the subplot. Vital continues to invert, with two distressed women and one man slowly regaining what they lost, here through transgression instead of mutating into something new.
The taboo-breaking in Tsukamoto’s work is in service of a deeper quest for answers—Bullet Ballet’s forlorn boyfriend seeks a gun in order to comprehend a loved one’s suicide, while Vital’s corpse obsession isn’t necrophilia but a tactile means of unlocking memory. Characters’ searches are powerful enough to catalyze a shift in someone near them, often a woman, into actual transgression, like Tokyo Fist’s Hizuru turning to extreme body modification in the wake of her boyfriend’s new obsession with boxing. The phrase “deeper quest for answers” seems too close to “spiritually uplifting,” so to clarify: Tsukamoto’s entire filmography is the polar opposite of Eat Pray Love-style films where the world flattens and bends to accommodate a self-absorbed character’s superficial lifestyle adjustments. Compared to those "spiritual journeys," Tsukamoto’s characters are hurricane eyes, inwardly focused even as their travels leave destructive wakes.
Discussing Vital, Tsukamoto said without a fear of death, reality becomes ambiguous, a problem exacerbated by an increasing amount of time spent in virtual spaces where dying doesn’t exist (including tweets from beyond the grave). In modern urbanity, most people don’t have to face the corporeal reality of death; like Miyazaki setting My Neighbor Totoro in rural Japan so urban children could appreciate the countryside, Vital was Tsukamoto’s attempt to correct the absence via exposure.
Less easily avoidable is Japan’s rainy season, when even denizens of Tokyo are confronted with the natural world, water pouring down on steel buildings and green growth forcefully emerging from concrete. A Snake of June is more explicit about the erotic connection, but both films tie together a burgeoning freedom from repression with this liquid encroachment. The camera lingers on skin throughout both films, with A Snake of June's voyeuristic shots of sweat and rain rolling off it counteracted by the entire film’s cold blue tint, and Vital’s jaundiced yellow peeling back of subcutaneous layers in search of the person once held within.
Even in adopting typical Tsukamoto tropes these films offer a gentler approach. Instead of viscera and fetishistic body mods, A Snake of June's corporeal horror is the body turned against itself—Rinko’s blackmailer Iguchi (played by Tsukamoto himself) is dying of stomach cancer, and after noticing a lump in one of his intimate photos, his familiarity with the disease leads Rinko to a breast cancer diagnosis. Iguchi’s fury at Rinko’s husband comes from his desire for a ‘perfect’ wife over a living one, as he discourages Rinko from getting a mastectomy. It’s only when husband and wife achieve actual intimacy that Shigehiko faces a disturbing break in reality — fondling her surgically altered breast, he’s confused and upset seeing the unoperated one moments later, the horror that just as he accepted imperfection, he’s faced with the literal malignancy of his ideal.
Tsukamoto’s fascination with anatomical extensions turns into technology as intimacy control. As he said in an interview, “We have this sense of actually becoming one with this technology and it is becoming a part of us. It is very strange that you can use metal tools to harvest food, but at the same time you can use them to kill someone.” Iguchi uses his camera to explore someone. Previously photographing inert commercial appliances, his lens becomes an extension of desire and a tool of pleasure. Foreshadowing Rinko’s freeing photoshoot in the rain, a coworker tells him “you need a big flash to make her come,” something Iguchi manages for Rinko without ever leaving his car. Meanwhile in Vital, Ikumi breaks up with her professor on her cell, telling him he has to talk through the phone though they’re physically just a few feet apart. She hangs up on him after he yells down the hall, technology distancing the physical plane and adding control.
Whereas Tsukamoto’s other films were and are additive, with characters accruing piercings, guns, metal, and swords, A Snake of June and Vital’s characters grow closer by stripping down. In A Snake of June it’s to naked flesh, when Rinko bares all in a rainy (and literal) climax, liberating herself and allowing her husband in. In Vital, by fully dissembling Ryoko’s remains, the living Ryoko and Hiroshi physically reconnect on a plane more vivid than reality. Tsukamoto might always be best known for his more shocking onscreen images, but his compassion is just as transgressive.