The past few years have been a particularly productive period for Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Since 2015, he has directed five films including the soppy, romance-from-the-dead story “Journey to the Shore”, his return to the crime genre “Creepy”, his underrated and sadly under seen French ghost story “Daguerrotype”, which brings us to his two 2017 features: “Before We Vanish” and “Foreboding”. “Before We Vanish” tackles the science fiction genre and is Kurosawa's version of a Hollywood staple: the alien invasion film. However his handling of the material is about as far away from the Hollywood norm as possible, as it is subtle, quiet, full of humanity and heart and only has the bare minimum of explosions and blood. But does any of that means it is any good? Lets take a look, shall we?
Three aliens head to Earth on a fact finding mission in preparation for a mass invasion by the rest of their race. The aliens first find a host body to inhabit and then find a guide to help them gather as much information about the human race as possible. When the alien takes over the body of their host, they also take over their essence so they essentially become different people completely to who they initially were. Due to the fact that words and language are so cumbersome, complex and easily misunderstood, the aliens prefer to steal “concepts” from humans instead. They get the human to think of a concept such as ownership, work, family or even love, and when they have determined the human has a focused, complete definition of that concept, they tap them on the head with their finger taking that information from them, causing the human to faint in the process. The aliens then must find each other (as they have been separated around different parts of Japan) and then set off a transmitter to signal its time to invade. However along their journey, the government learns of their presence and is attempting to hunt them down, while they also start to find parts of humanity intriguing.
I must admit that when the first trailers for “Before We Vanish” came out, I was a little disappointed and I wasn't expecting a whole lot from it, to be honest. Well I am happy to report that I had a great time with the film, mainly because it wasn't as dead serious as I was expecting it to be. In fact, for a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, I was pleasantly surprised by how light the tone was and how the film didn't take itself too seriously. While you would never call “Before We Vanish” a comedy, it has been created with a light touch, finding funny moments where it can, with some fish out of water moments from the aliens (literally in one case). From a directorial standpoint, Kurosawa is at the top of his game. He, along with his regular cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa, are in total control of the images and story, and it is all expertly handled. In fact some of the camera moves in the film are both complex and impressive, but they never feel like he is showing off; they suit the story perfectly. Its funny, but I never really know how to explain Kiyoshi Kurosawa's visual style, even though it is easily identifiable, which is still the case in “Before We Vanish”. It is a clean, no fuss style that gives off the vibe that none of it has been prepared extensively, when it obviously has. Another thing that Kurosawa is great at is using low-fi effects, and with this film I am mainly thinking of the explosions and plane effects towards the end of the film.
The interesting notion of the film is the aliens stealing concepts from humans, because as a side effect it then leaves that human without any notion of that concept. For example, one of the aliens steals from his guide's sister the concept of “family”. Once she comes to, she no longer recognises her sister as someone from her family, and immediately flees this, now, stranger's house. Similarly, removing a concept from some humans is the source of a lot of the comedy in the film, as we suddenly see very serious humans revert to a childlike state once the concept of work has been removed from their mind. A cliché often found in these types of films is that the aliens find something that they love about humanity or learn to love humans, and while “Before We Vanish” is a victim of this too, it has been handled in a much different manner. No matter how much they are impressed by us, the aliens are determined that no matter what, the invasion will happen; it is only a matter of time. Kiyoshi Kurosawa has handled apocalyptic tales before in “Kairo” and “Charisma”, but as I have mentioned already, this time around it is a much lighter approach. The stakes are the same, but it just doesn't feel as heavy, which could mainly be due to the fact that very few of the humans actually know that the world is about to cease to exist.
While there is a lot I loved about this film, I did have a couple of problems with “Before We Vanish”, although none of these are major. First up, the film is just far too long. This is a problem with cinema in general these days, but I think that a good twenty minutes of the film could have been removed to make the film better. Its not because some of the scenes are terrible, rather that they are making the same points already made earlier, so the reaping of concepts starts to become a little repetitive. Another issue I had with the film was the characterisations of the aliens. Two of the three are very goofy and always smiling to the extreme, whilst the other alien (played by Ryuhei Matsuda) looks constantly sullen and doesn't smile the entire film. There is no explanation in the film as to why Matsuda's alien is so different from the other two, so it comes across as a little odd. Speaking of lack of explanations, there is also no indication given as to how the alien's presence on Earth has been discovered by the government. I assume it is during the time one of them is given a blood test, but it is never explained which I found very frustrating.
What I loved about “Before We Vanish”, besides the fact that it was so damned entertaining, was its finale, which I guess you could say is two fold. Some may find the end very anti-climatic, especially if they are expecting a huge Hollywood ending (don't stress guys, there is still explosions, guns and blood), but all this leads up to the most beautifully, heartbreaking end to the film. This is where the real heart of the film lies and it shows its true humanity, as it examines what true love is and how painful it is to live in a world without love. Kurosawa does not overplay the finale at all, and it is all the better for it. As I said, I found the ending so beautiful, but totally heartbreaking. It is all the more so, due to the scenes leading up to the end, where actress Masami Nagasawa just owns the screen with her performance. She plays the wife of one of the human's taken over by an alien and she is the best thing about “Before We Vanish”. She is perfectly grounded and on the edge of wanting to fall in love again with the husband who has hurt her in the past, even though she knows that he is no longer the same man. Its a complex position her character is put in and Nagasawa is perfect at displaying this.
Overall, while this is not top tier Kiyoshi Kurosawa, I found “Before We Vanish” to be a hell of a lot of fun. His tale of alien invasion has been handled with a lighter touch than is usual or expected from this director and this lighter tone is complimented by the, at times, silly and goofy score from Yusuke Hayashi. While I had a few issues with some lack of explanation and the characterisations of the aliens, these were minor issues that didn't really effect my enjoyment. As usual, Kurosawa's direction is superb and I was a big fan of the film's ending which I found both beautiful and heartbreaking. For those expecting an alien invasion film the likes that Hollywood make, you are likely to be disappointed, but for mine, I found “Before We Vanish” to be hugely entertaining and I look forward to watching its companion film “Foreboding” in the next week or so.