Kiyoshi Kurosawa is often pigeonholed as a horror director whose films frequently finds ghosts lurking in the darkness, but his latest feature Before We Vanish is his first alien invasion movie has the threat occuring in broad daylight. Based on a stageplay by Tomohiro Maekawa which was first performed in 2005, this film appeared at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and has had a dorama spin-off. A glib comparison might be Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as aliens travel to Earth and take human hosts. But in this chat-pocalypse, tension is dialed down for an effective examination of what it means to be human with surprising results that may or may not stop the end of humanity.
Somewhere in Shizuoka, freelance designer Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) and her salaryman husband Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda) are having marital problems. Narumi susects Shinji of cheating and he has recently disappeared, so when she is furious when summoned to a hospital to pick him up. However, the man facing her in the doctor’s office seems like a totally different person, a blank slate with vague memories of his life who struggles to navigate social situations. He’s even unable to use his body properly. Things learned over time have been shorn away from including the basic meaning behind various ideas such as possession, family, and love. He wants to learn these things, so he asks Narumi to be his guide. When she isn’t around, he likes to go for walks and talks to random people to get their understanding of a situation or word. What happens next reveals his alien nature as he engages in a game of word association. He gently questions people until he actually sees the ideas visually forming in their head and, once that happens, he touches the person’s forehead and plucks the idea away, learning a new concept while erasing it from the speaker. Since he’s an alien, it is how he learns what makes humans work. After so many relationship problems, Narumi is surprised by her kinder and gentler man who tries to understand her more. What she doesn’t know is that she has the easier alien to deal with.
Across town, a brutal murder of a family has been committed with dismembered limbs and viscera everywhere. A trail of bloody chaos leads to a school girl named Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu). If Shinji is gentle in nature and looking at emotions, the alien inhabiting Akira is the complete opposite: ruthless, brutal, and quite interested in finding out what makes humans physically tick. She has picked up martial art skills and an appetite for destruction. Seedy tabloid journalist Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) is sent to cover her murderous mayhem around the time he meets another alien, a nonchalant teenage boy named Amano (Mahiro Takasugi). Sakurai, initially sceptical about spacemen and thought-stealers decides to hang out with the two teens and discovers he has a major scoop: it’s all real and there’s an alien invasion about to kick-off. What all of these characters don’t know is that they are being hunted by agents from the Health Ministry. With the players on the pitch, they are all set in motion, chasing and evading each other.
Throughout his career, Kurosawa has flitted between genres and sometimes combined them. Before We Vanish is a mighty genre mash-up, leisurely strolling through apocalyptic alien invasion thriller and romantic-comedy territory over the course of its 130 minutes. He actually dials down the invasion thrills for a low-tension apocalypse and indulges in romantic and culture clash comedy moments with sudden spikes of violence. As Narumi tries to understand her husband, Shinji gets into various hijinks. His inability to move properly leads to funny physical comedy and Matsuda’s blank face is the perfect punchline for deadpan humour, especially for the verbal stuff, which drives Narumi and others crazy. Acting as a counterpoint to this gentle comedy are action scenes and chase sequences. Some are flat and merely serve to move the plot along. However, others help increase the sense of threat from government agents. The highlights are definitely the fights involving Akira, who is utterly remorseless in the way she takes apart middle-aged men in hand-to-hand combat. These moments bring excitement to a laidback narrative. Tsunematsu dazzles thanks to some sharp fight choreography but the alien’s ability to steal concepts are also used in these moments to take the fights in unexpected directions.
These elements keep Before We Vanish from becoming maudlin as human emotions are explored through Narumi and Shinji’s relationship. Indeed, what gives the film it’s low-tension horror and mordant humour, and what makes it really engaging, is found in the way people live with and are held back by concepts which aliens expose and plunder, freeing people from the ideas that cause unhappiness and joy. Characters react to losing a lifetime of shame and hatred with looks of bliss, while seeing people lose concepts that hold societies together like family is genuinely chilling and plays into a wider sense of an apocalypse as we see Japan’s fraying social fabric. That it happens in everyday spaces with relatable people and that we see government pushback as agents take to the streets poses a critique of the underlying political tensions in Abe’s Japan as war, surveillance, and the price of social conditioning that condones workplace abuse are mined for satirical content.
Another glib comparison might be Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) as characters head towards the end of everything, but there’s less creeping dread and awful loneliness here and more brightness and hope since what really gives the film its heart is the central relationship between Shinji and Narumi. This is Nagasawa’s film as she runs a whole gamut of emotions from anger and disgust to faithful love as Narumi has to decide whether to stand by her man. It is fitting that this couple could hold the key to the fate of humanity and their relationship allows Kurosawa to ultimately pull the entire narrative together for a surprisingly tender finale that not only feels truly romantic and well-earned but caps every idea that has been raised throughout.