“We’re invading Earth. Got your attention?”
Director/writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for his numerous films of horror, terror, and things that go bump in the night from the utterly terrifying Pulse to the recent festival hit, Creepy. Atmosphere, dread, and death are his bread and butter, but he found success in 2008 with his dramatically affecting detour, Tokyo Sonata. His latest film, Before We Vanish, sees him again stepping away from horror, and once more the result is something very special. Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of John Carpenter’s Starman, and you’ll still not quite know what to expect.
Three aliens arrive on Earth as step one in a planned invasion destined to end humanity as we know it. They look like humans because they’re using humans as shells, but there’s something of a learning curve to their new bodies. It takes some time getting used to human form, from the simple act of walking to the more complex art of understanding, and it’s the latter that the three are focused on most. They learn by literally taking a person’s conception of something, sometimes with disastrous results for their subject. The three are also in need of human “guides” to help them acclimate and achieve their goals, but that doesn’t go so smoothly.
The first visitor takes a convoluted and bloody path to its host, a teenage girl named Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), and works its way through a goldfish, an old man, and the man’s wife before heading out into the world — it’s a fun nod to Kurosawa’s preferred genre and J-horror in general as the bloody teen in a schoolgirl outfit barely warrants a second glance walking down the street. Amano (Mahiro Takasugi) is handling things better and quickly finds a guide in a tabloid reporter named Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa). The journalist’s own nihilism sees him torn between not believing the alien’s story and happily helping him initiate the invasion. Last up is Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda) whose initial steps as a human leave him both wobbly and inquisitive. His new nature also leaves him more interesting to his long-disaffected wife, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), and it’s this rekindled love that ultimately becomes the aliens’ greatest obstacle.
Before We Vanish is at its heart a love story, of sorts, but it’s one that fully entwines its sweet observations with wonderfully cynical conclusions. The reporter and the wife are two sides of our own guides — one willingly headed towards destruction and the other intent on securing a second chance — and while the aliens learn the audience does too. Far from just an alternately sappy and mean-spirited snapshot of humanity, though, the film also delivers both laughs and adrenaline-fueled sequences involving gun fights, drone strikes, and Akira’s numerous and violent outbursts.
Kurosawa teases his horror-related talents in early images of bloody slaughter, but it’s his subtle humor and endless interest in humanity’s ongoing struggle to communicate and understand each other that takes center stage here. From the aliens’ direct efforts to comprehend people to the married couple’s unexpected emotional reunion (again, of sorts), Kurosawa sets their engagements against mundane backdrops making their conversations the focus.
The film’s playful score pairs well with the at times deceptively light tone, and it’s only through dialogue and the increasingly imminent threat of invasion that we’re led towards an ending that manages both hope and darkness. It’s an immensely satisfying and highly entertaining journey touching on multiple genres in search of a simple truth, and while it’s not as simple as giving the aliens a reason not to destroy humanity it does acknowledge the complicated relationship we have with each other and ourselves. Our understanding of love can be shared or ignored, but it can’t be taken.
Kurosawa’s no stranger to these themes, but Before We Vanish explores them better than any of his previous films. Who knew the cusp of extinction would be as good a time as any for a little self-reflection?
Before We Vanish opens February 2nd in limited theatrical release.