Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ponderous, effortlessly endearing alien-invasion dramedy filters the strangeness of modern life through its trio of alien protagonists.
The Japanese are no strangers to the quirky, off-kilter and unconventional when it comes to their cinema, especially in their sci-fi efforts. Enter Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of the J-horror flick Pulse and Tokyo Sonata, a long-time denizen of the weirdness indicative of Japanese cinema, and his latest work Before We Vanish. An eccentric, but undeniable inspired alien invasion movie that playfully dabbles in a million different genres but settling on none, Before We Vanish delights as much as it confuses – and, considering its slower pace and two-plus hour running time – occasionally bores.
As a prelude to an unseen alien invasion, three agents of this invading force inhabit the bodies of three young Japanese adults – Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), Amano (Mahiro Takasugi) and Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu). Their goal? To learn from, understand, and steal various human ‘conceptions’ like love, anger, desire and so on, to better comprehend the pests inhabiting their next conquest. There’s no hatred in their hearts, or contempt for the human race: when we first see them, they’re like babes in the woods, reliant on human ‘guides’ to get around and help them pick up these conceptions. There’s an endearingly quirky fatalism to the entire affair – these body-snatchers are infinitely curious and casual about humanity, simply taking as fact that everyone they meet along the way will be wiped out in the oncoming storm.
The problem, however, is that they don’t all land in the same place, Before We Vanish eventually settling into a bifurcated story of two different sets of alien explorers learning from their environment. Shinji, left on his own, learns about humanity with the help of her baffled, but committed wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), who slowly grows to also love the creature that’s taken over her husband’s body. The other half of the story follows Amano’s quest to find Akira, with the help of a laconic journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) who quickly discovers their secret and is curious to learn more.
Because of these split stories, which only briefly intersect near the film’s final act, Before We Vanish plays out less like a single, consistent narrative than two different takes on the same conceit. Shinji and Narumi’s unconventional rom-com story runs opposite Amano and Akira’s dogged commitment to the end of the human race, with journalist Sakurai in tow – one wonders whether the film’s exhaustive runtime could have been truncated by just focusing on one of these stories.
In concert, though, they contribute to Kurosawa’s deliberately idiosyncratic filmmaking, the film giddily wobbling between tones: low-key Japanese social comedy to end-times thriller, gory action picture (Akira’s main goal in the film is to kick ass in her Japanese schoolgirl outfit) to tender love story. Somehow, the messy languorousness of the film’s runtime becomes a feature rather than a bug, offering a more comprehensive look at the strangeness of human society, and the little moments of tenderness that might just change the invaders’ minds.
For a film about the end of the world, there’s a lack of tension in Before We Vanish that makes it occasionally difficult to care about what’s going on. That’s quite possibly the film’s major joke: humans who learn of their impending doom treat these proclamations with a shrug, or just confusion. Instead, Kurosawa relishes the fish-out-of-water moments of the film’s first half, like freshly-possessed Shinji getting used to walking around on two legs or Amano’s giddy guilelessness about his true identity and mission. Especially charming is the method by which these agents take conceptions from the minds of their victims: a mere poke on the forehead, and their subject falls to their knees in dumbfounded awe, as if they’ve been touched by God. It’s a simple, but effective motif that punctuates the film’s otherwise tamped-down sense of pace.
It’s too long by half, and its cultural rhythms might confuse the uninitiated, but Before We Vanish is an interesting little alien invasion flick that feels much more Starman than The Day the Earth Stood Still – a distinctly offbeat movie about what makes us human, and whether it’s worth saving.
Before We Vanish is in theaters now in NY and LA.