Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Starring Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa, Kazuya Kojima. Japan 2017 Certificate: 15 130 mins
Released by Arrow Video on Blu Ray, Digital HD and the Arrow Video Channel on Amazon Prime Video UK on 11th February 2019
Writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of Japan’s greatest living filmmakers, with a particular knack for thoughtful genre pictures combining familiar commercial tropes with incisive commentary on his homeland in the 21st century. At the point where the J-horror cycle was heading swiftly to over-saturation (and the realm of diluted American remakes), he made PULSE, a chilling and achingly melancholic study of alienation and still one of the creepiest movies of the last 20 years.
Kurosawa is a master of deceptively quiet scenes of domestic terror. BEFORE WE VANISH, adapted from the play by Tomohiro Maekawa, opens with one of his greatest: a sequence of suburban disturbance as a schoolgirl stands in front of her massacred family (and goldfish), splattered in their blood. She then calmly wanders into the middle of a busy road, walking and looking at her own body as if it is somehow unfamiliar and grinning as vehicles crash behind her. The scene is probably the most overt “action” sequence in a deliberately paced and sedate film, but it captures the subtly unsettling, darkly comic tone of everything that is to come.
BEFORE WE VANISH occupies the well-worn territory of big budget, effects-driven Hollywood blockbusters and a parallel cycle of horror-inflected, pessimistic science fiction. A the core is a conceit on loan from the various incarnations of INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS: three humans have had their bodies hijacked by a trio of visiting aliens, in preparation for a full scale invasion of Earth expected to be completed within three days. Kurosawa uses this as a means of crafting a comparatively small-scale examination of typical Earthly flaws and concerns from the alien perspective: strained relationships, numbing work routines, loneliness, love and the race’s inexorable requirement for war.
The aliens precipitating the larger takeover have inhabited the bodies of Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu) and Amano (Mahiro Takasugi). Shinji is found wandering aimlessly like the girl in the prologue by his illustrator wife (Masami Nagasawa) at the point where their marriage seems to be reaching its end thanks to his apparent office affair. Shinji begins talking about how he wants to learn about the human race and, referring to himself in the third person, notes his desire to repair the “broken” Shinji. Meanwhile, weekly news magazine reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) is investigating dismemberment murders when he gets wind of the alien hosts and becomes a “guide” for one of them as the aliens set about their mission of “collecting concepts”.
The human world of BEFORE WE VANISH is of an easily distracted and often oblivious race who, regardless, will die out within about 100 years. The aliens spend the film attempting to understand intricate concepts of family and love, and this results in a beguiling story that oscillates between poignant individual character beats and delightful light comedy interludes. A bitter sweet highlight of the latter is the sequence in which the hijacked schoolgirl talks of almost choosing to take goldfish form, while her extra-terrestrial companions’ express amusement that Sakurai is eager to write about the very beings who will soon take his home planet and seal his fate.
This cerebral sci-fi piece is too quiet and, at times, too meandering to appeal to all tastes, though it represents another meticulously crafted and distinctive Kurosawa work, with characteristically minimal FX and unobtrusive use of music (though the work of composer Yusuke Hayashi is integral to the overall effect). In contrast to the filmmaker’s stand-out work in the horror field, it is also ultimately optimistic about its ugly bags of mostly water, at a time when optimism is in understandably short supply amongst its genre stable mates.