By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Japanese film-maker Kiyoshi Kurosawa has enjoyed baffling and unsettling audiences over his thirty-plus year career, and his latest which may have a number of movie-goers scratching their heads, is the alien invasion drama Before We Vanish. Those expecting Roland Emmerich-style mayhem though, will be more than a little disappointed.
The opening scenes certainly grab one’s attention, with a seemingly normal high school girl slaughtering her entire family in their own home. Detached to the carnage she has caused, the student gives the impression that everything around her is completely unknown.
In a hospital not too far away, disgruntled wife Narumi Kase (Masami Nagasawa) looks at her heartless, irresponsible husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), who has just been located after disappearing for a few days. What immediately strikes Narumi as odd is Shinji’s strange behaviour, acting ever-so-politely as if he is suffering from a severe case of amnesia, but in a way that has regressed him back to childhood. Even the examining doctor is perplexed, as Shinji still remembers some very obscure details about Narumi.
Narumi, who works as a commercials designer, isn’t too pleased at now having to babysit her adult husband, as it will take time away from an important project she is currently handling. We further get a sense that something is wrong when Shinji confronts Narumi’s younger sister Asumi (Atsuko Maeda), questioning his sister-in-law about what her perception of family is.
It is when muckraking journalist Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) meets teenager Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), both of whom are hanging around the house where the family were massacred, that the situation is made clear. A trio of aliens have landed on Earth, taken over three individuals; Amano, high school girl Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu), and Shinji; and are to gather intel which will be sent back to their home planet, so the inhabitants will know how to conquer the human race as quickly as possible. Amano and Akira need Sakurai’s help in locating Shinji, whose alien host has landed in a different location, and promise that he will have the exclusive on mankind’s extinction.
As the alien attempts to use Shinji’s memories to deal with his frustrated ‘guide’, it also has Narumi re-evaluating her relationship with her transformed husband, her self-worth, and how much she treasures the world she lives in, as it looks like everything will be coming to an end very soon.
For the formula the film initially falls in, Before We Vanish will strike many as an off-kilter and rather slow-burn experience, devoid of excitement and CGI-heavy thrills. For fans of Kurosawa however, the ambience, tone, and pace will come as no surprise, with the director concentrating on a number of elements which normally disappear between the large scale cracks of alien invasion epics. Instead of embracing monumental destruction and the casual dismissal of huge loss of life, he cleverly uses the aliens’ interaction with, and reaction to, people as a mirror image of mankind’s largely savage ways. The examination of human concepts, such as work, family, and material possession, enables Kurosawa to critique (in sometimes absurd fashion) what our definition of a perfect, normal society is.
Kurosawa does appear to borrow from some of his previous efforts, such as Cure (1997), Pulse (2001), and Doppelgänger (2003), while continuing his fascination with identity, and how people can feel disconnected to their surrounding environment, particularly when their own point-of-view deviates from the one embraced by society. Based on the 2005 play by Tomohiro Maekawa, Kurosawa and fellow screenwriter Sachiko Tanaka keep the material thoughtful and intimate.
The acting is superb, with the cast moving from drama, comedy, romance, and horror with skilful ease, making sure that Maekawa’s original work and Kurosawa’s execution of it is both absorbing and satisfying. The always reliable Nagasawa (I Am a Hero, Our Little Sister, Wood Job!) is terrific as Narumi, as is Matsuda (The Mohican Comes Home, The Great Passage, Phone Call to the Bar) as Shinji, whose innocent education of Earth culture is reminiscent of Jeff Bridges’ outer-space visitor in John Carpenter’s Starman (1984). Their characters’ journey forms the most emotionally involving section of the story, and these two wonderful actors elevate Kurosawa’s typically clinical approach. Matsuda offers a number of comically low-key laughs, delivered in his inimitable deadpan style.
Rounding out the main cast is Takasugi (who made strong impressions in the charming Tori Girl and P to JK), Tsunematsu (Sagrada Reset films), and Hasegawa (Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, Princess Jellyfish, Shin Godzilla), who all provide pitch-perfect performances. There are also notable appearances from veterans Kyoko Koizumi (Survive Style 5+, Hanging Garden, Adrift in Tokyo) and Takashi Sasano (Dear Doctor, Happy Flight, Grateful Dead).
As is usually the case with Kurosawa, this is a gorgeous looking film, with exceptional widescreen work by cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa (The Chef of South Polar, Tokyo Sonata, Journey to the Shore), a very knowing score by Yusuke Hayashi (Penance, Dearest), and some subtle, restrained editing by Koichi Takahashi (School Days With a Pig, Sawako Decides). Only the occasional appearance of CGI fails to fully convince, but thankfully these moments are few-and-far between.
Before We Vanish continues Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s recent trend of fusing his particular interests with different genres (resulting in films such as Real, Daguerrotype, and Journey to the Shore), and his unusual, intelligent creation is a welcome addition to the sci-fi realm, which has been a bit too loud and empty of late. At 129 minutes, this does require patience, but like Kurosawa’s previous film, Creepy, the rewards are plentiful, leading to a genuinely moving ending.