Contemporary Asian Film
30 March 2007
The Psychological Work of Dissection in Vital
"I wonder how she died." [medical student]
"You’ll find out as you dissect." [instructor]
In his Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud said that to eradicate a pathogenic trauma "it was necessary to reproduce the whole chain of pathogenic memories in chronological order, or rather in reversed order, the latest ones first and the earliest ones last" (14). In Vital Takagi does not precisely follow this process, but in spirit his working-through is much the same. Really his is an exaggerated version of such working-through. The dissection of Ryoko's body very much replicates Freud's observance that a patients who had lost memory "acts it out...reproduces it not as a memory but as an action" ("Remembering, Acting, Repeating, and Working Through," 150). Takagi's act of remembrance is a medical student's cadaver dissection, a quite literal re-membering of the student's subject. Even if he has suffered some sort of head trauma due to the car accident in effect Takagi represses the psychic material surrounding his relationship with Ryoko. This material is often evoked by actions in daily life, not always dreams. The importance of memory to personality (not only for Takagi but for those that surround him) and the odyssey of its retrieval are at the core of the film. Freud's name written on the blackboard and the professor discussing the mystery of the "vast unconsciousness" in the early scenes of Takagi at medical school is no accident.
The notion of remembrance by mental association runs throughout the film. After Takagi has woken from coma, and decided to move out of his parent's house, his mother has his old furniture brought into the apartment and put in its former place "to help him remember". When he has not yet recovered any memory, the moment before he intuitively rediscovers his anatomical sketches, he gazes into an abstract shape in the woodgrain. This sequence is repeated later before one of the fantasy sequences of Ryoko under a triangulate rock on the beach—an image which echoes the abstract image in the woodgrain. The tattoo on Ryoko's arm is another instance of such visual association. Only after Takagi recognizes the design of the tattoo does he begin to connect the cadaver with his own lost memories. "The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it", Freud writes in Three Essays on Sexuality (222). In Takagi's case this is quite actual. But it may also say something about the fictive creation involved in memory itself. Ryoko is absent from the established 'present' of the film. She is recreated through other characters: through Takagi and his father, and Ryoko's father. Absent from Takagi's experience in the film is any individual analyst; instead the process of remembrance seems to be channeled through subconscious impulses in his own life and through clues provided by others who remember Ryoko.
For instance, he takes up medicine (the family inheritance over which he had been debating in his former life with Ryoko) by hazard or, in a psychoanalytic reading, because he is subconsciously drawn to resolving the trauma experienced after being agent to the destruction of Ryoko's living body. The dissection itself is portrayed as a kind of ritual process. The uncovering of the cadaver is like the unwrapping of a mummy; thus a reverse burial ritual.—an uncovering of that which has passed away. His dissection sketches are a continuation of his artistic pursuits during his former life with her. This artistic process is itself a part of his psychic 'working-through'. But it is the work with Ryoko's physical body which ultimately becomes Takagi's obsession and conciliatory gesture toward the capability to accept responsibility for his part in a death he does not initially remember.
Ryoko's father enacts a sexually protective role toward his daughter with her former lover. He does not like, he says, the idea of Takagi "poking around in her". He and his wife find Ryoko's donation of her corpse to medicine abhorrent but not as abhorrent as being confronted by the report that the man they hold responsible for her death is now dissecting her. After the death of the mother (from grief?), the father comes to terms with Takagi's strange love for his daughter and even forgives him and consoles him that the light had gone out of Ryoko's eyes a long time before. In the end, Takagi is told affirmatively to take good care of his daughter's body and to place a few items of personal or sentimental value into her coffin, an act he performs, thus reconciling himself with her family and with his lost memory.
As I said earlier, it is through body language that Takagi reconstructs lost memory. He "does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out" in terms of the body ("Remembering" 150). Thus with his new lover, in the sexual strangulation scenes, Takagi "repeats [these sexual actions]...without, of course, knowing that he is repeating" (ibid.). In the process of doing so however, he involuntarily, unconsciously, recalls a similar situation in the past with Ryoko. It gives him an image which is part of the narrative he is constructing of his time with her; thus draws him away from interpersonal reality, or the ability to relate to those who have no connection with Ryoko or himself in the time she was alive.1
` In some ways, Takagi is an Orpheus to Ryoko's Eurydice. In fact, his fantasies of her by the water and in the rainforest both support and rework this mythic resonance. Unlike Eurydice, he is able to look upon her all he wants while he is in his fantasy world (he is even able to touch her and make love to her) but, when he has finally completed the narrative and solved the mystery of his forgotten connections with her, she disappears even from the fantasy world. Thus, like Orpheus, Takagi is "astounded and perplexed by this two-fold death of his wife" (Ovid 261). More likely, this comes out of the common theme in post-modern film and literature of 'the killer is really you'. The rediscovery, through the reconstruction of a lost narrative (usually brought on by a chance encounter after a traumatic event in the character's life, which demands reparation).2
Such reconstruction is a variation on the detective tale. It is also a variation on Freud's observance of his grandson playing fort-da with spool and string, a game of disappearance and reappearance where "the greater pleasure was attached to the second act" (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 10). This plot structure reassures us of psychic power to set the world in order again through the creation of mnemonic narrative.
So Takagi's fantastical visits to the beautiful green and watery land only he and Ryoko inhabit is a kind of Edenic reconstruction of their relationship; the reappearance of her in his conscious life. He reconnects with the departed by embodied imagination of her. As the writer dreams of tales, so the medical student in the process of dissecting a cadaver dreams (or daydreams) of the body and of its inner workings. This may explain Ryoko's jerky dancing. As her former lover, he dreams of sex with her. As a mourner, he dreams that she, in turn, pleads with him not to go back to the land of the living, as he does not want her to go to the land of the dead.
The smokestacks of the crematorium where Ryoko meets her final end are featured at the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, the viewer is presented with a nauseating moving shot of the smokestacks and raucous music. This evokes an anomalous tragedy—in other words, something is amiss but we cannot name it or chronologize it. Through this beginning, we are led into Takagi's own state of mind before he can name the tragedy. In the end, we share in the knowledge of what the smokestacks represent. We witness Ryoko's physical body departing in the smoke but know a narrative of her life and thus connect an emotion with the image which at first confounded us.
The question of whether Takagi's mnemonic reconstruction of Ryoko is true or not, in this psychoanalytic reading, is beside the point. His love affair with her seems to have fallen into that special category of memories, like those of childhood, "for which no memory can as a rule be recovered...[which] were not understood at the time but...were subsequently understood and interpreted" ("Remembering" 149). Even memories like those during the sexual strangulation may be reconstructed subsequently. Freud himself admitted that at times repressed or forgotten material could not be recovered. Then the analyst must try to give the patient "an assured conviction of the truth of the construction which achieves the same therapeutic result as a recaptured memory" ("Constructions in Analysis" 266). He comes to term with his guilt through the narrative generated by the film—through the dismembering and remembering of his dead lover's body Takagi recaptures a narrative role for her in the story of his life.
1Though unrelated contextually it is interesting that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln both felt it necessary to have deceased loved ones (Emerson his first wife and Lincoln his son) exhumed in order to view their remains and commune with their memory.
2A good example of this in literature is Paul Auster's City of Glass, in which the main character, whose wife and child have recently died, a detective writer, receives an anonymous phone call which assumes he is a real detective (though with a different name). He takes the job and works for a man with the same name as his son who is trying to avoid being killed by his insane father. Thus the detective himself is psychically repairing guilt over his son's death, etc. In film, the examples are more numerous: Memento and The Number 23 also ostensibly deal with the reconstruction of lost memory.
Vital. Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 2004.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.
---------------. "Constructions in Analysis." The Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth, 1974.
---------------. Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth, 1974.
---------------. "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through." Vol. 12, Standard
---------------. Three Essays on Sexuality. Vol. 7, Standard Edition.