'Before We Vanish'
It’s not particularly surprising that Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa would find himself making a ‘Body Snatchers’-esque sci-fi/horror yarn. In films like ‘Pulse’ and ‘Cure’, he mined the metaphorical horror of increasing human disconnection within more familiar genre trappings. The legacy of the Body Snatchers fits Kurosawa’s aesthetic and interests like a velvet glove. Even more welcome, ‘Before We Vanish’ is also a surprisingly heartwarming tale equally influenced by John Carpenter’s ‘Starman’ beneath all of the filmmaker’s typical cynicism.
The opening scene starts off like a fairly standard horror yarn. It’s even oddly sensationalistic for the typically reserved Kurosawa. We see the classic J-Horror trope of an evil schoolgirl, in this case brandishing a machine gun and blowing stuff up. We soon learn that she’s an alien (Yuri Tsunematsu). She and another young gentleman alien (Mahiro Takasugi) have taken over the bodies of humans. They’re not just wreaking havoc for fun; they’re also doing recon work. You see, they’re the scouts for a planned world domination, and are checking out humanity’s weaknesses before the big attack. A journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) discovers the aliens, but has a hard time convincing anyone what’s happening and an even harder time deciding if he has it inside him to fight to save the world.
Meanwhile, in a more subdued and typically Kiyoshi Kurosawa-esque subplot, a third alien takes over the body of cheating husband (Ryûhei Matsuda). His wife (Masami Nagasawa) notices the change, but weirdly, it seems to be for the better. After some initial stumbling around at being a human, he actually proves to be a more suitable partner than the man he possessed. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
While ‘Before We Vanish’ feels very indebted to classic sci-fi/horror stories and boasts a delightfully low-fi 1980s aesthetic, Kurosawa is reaching for something a bit more complicated. The effects are good (until things get a little too ambitious near the end), the scares are consistent, and the director handles some mild action sequences beautifully despite not typically dabbling in that sort of sensationalism. The flick works as pure entertainment. Maybe it’s a little too long and subdued in parts for some, but it’s filled with fun set-pieces, endearingly odd characters, and a twisted narrative that never quite goes where you think it will. In some ways, the film is a crowd-pleaser, just thankfully not in every way.
As always, Kurosawa plays with genre tropes to tease out more complicated ideas and make them palatable for audiences. While ‘Before We Vanish’ is indeed a genre yarn, it offers some food for thought. On the one hand, the plot implies the ways in which Japanese and human identity are both fragile and easily disrupted. The journalist, who in any other telling of this story would be the hero to save humanity, is instead a weak and neurotic character deeply unprepared for the potentially historic task laid on him. It’s Kurosawa’s ironic twist on the conventional hero of these stories, suggesting that were any of these old movie ideas actually to happen, chances are the hapless would-be hero that fate calls upon couldn’t actually handle the responsibility.
On the other hand, the story of the alien/human couple is oddly optimistic as it presents love as humanity’s great saving grace and something perhaps unique to the species. Amidst all the madness, thrills, dark comedy, and surrealistic diversions taking place in the rest of this loopy epic, Kurosawa actually sneaks in a sweet and even romantic message.
The biggest surprise of this latest weirdo genre experiment by Kiyoshi Kurosawa is that the director just might have a big, warm, beating heart beneath the chilly and cynical exterior he presents in his films. That’s a twist no fan could have seen coming.