On understand beneath and beyond words, pseudo-lobotomized marriage counseling, and a very Kiyoshi Kurosawa take on alien invasion
Before We Vanish Super LTD
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka, based on the play by Tomohiro Maekawa
Starring: Ryûhei Matsuda, Masami Nagasawa, Hiroki Hasegawa, Yuri Tsunematsu, Mahiro Takasugi, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Atsuko Maeda, Ken Mitsuishi and Takashi Sasano
Not rated / 2 hours, 9 minutes / 2.39:1
(out of four)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa has never been satisfied simply putting things into words. At least not when he can help it. His work often directly undercuts the way we define things, exposes the limitations of language. He finds the ineffable even in the easily categorized, crawling underneath that fixed meaning to find the purest essence of an idea, or behavior, or belief, or instinct. To reveal it in its unspeakable form. He looks for the existential in the technological, the inexplicable in the methodical, the philosophical in the spectral.
In his approach to phenomena, crime, myths, motives, patterns of behavior, even communication itself, he manages to conjure the transcendent, intangible meaning of his subject while deftly eluding the thing itself ... if that makes sense. (Look at me, failing to articulate this in words. Is this the film-critic equivalent of method acting?) Even when his best movies start to explain their mysteries in some way, those explanations are specific yet withholding, clearly defined but in a way that obscures the nebulous shape of something much, much bigger. He understands that trying to simply explain complicated concepts and even-more-complicated emotions is futile; at his best, he's able to evoke them on a visceral, strangely intuitive level, as if he's subliminally implanting a vague but powerful truth.
And so it should come as no surprise that his invading aliens in Before We Vanish - though they speak in human language(s) for practical purposes - have little use for human definitions and signifiers, opting to capture any and all pillars of humanity only in their subconscious, sublingual form. This is the fact-finding portion of the invasion. Annihilation is set for afterward. What they want from us are the things we can't tangibly detect, but would feel profoundly if they went missing. Pick a notion, any notion, and their method of finding out what it means is not to ask you, but simply remove it from you - to touch you calmly with a fingertip and absorb the entire concept from your mind, your memory, your intuition, your genetic code. There are three of them (at least in the greater Tokyo area), each dropped in different locations and into different host bodies. They're scheduled to reunite at a specific time and a specific place, at which point the invasion will begin in earnest. Until then, they will collect as much knowledge as possible. Actually, knowledge is the wrong word. Understanding. They don't learn - they take. They co-opt the innate.
The aliens enlist guides to usher them along their way, filling in knowledge gaps and getting them from place to place in and around Tokyo. They need a bit of human assistance, a few supplies, some direction. (They don't even bother hiding their civilization-destroying intentions. It's simply treated as a matter of fact.) Along the way, whenever they hear of a concept or idea they believe might be useful, they calmly ask the unlucky human in question to concentrate on that idea, and then they quickly remove it, a spiritual transference from one intelligence to another. The most unsettling thing is that the idea, whether trivial or profound - home, family, possession, betrayal, jealousy, love - is gone from its original owner forever. Affected people continue on, continue living, as if lobotomized in an inexplicably narrow way.
The three aliens in their three host bodies - two male, one female, at least in human terms; any extraterrestrial conception of sex or gender is left vague - have rather distinct personalities. The first one we meet goes by the name Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), a young woman who takes the opportunity to massacre the entire family of her body's former self. She stoically observes the results of her carnage and licks the blood from her drenched hands before heading out into the world, imbued with a nonchalant attitude toward the violence that will come in handy throughout her brief time on Earth. Then there's Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), practically a portrait of boyish innocence, who commissions a curious journalist, Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), to drive him around from place to place and give him a few pointers, all while making perfectly clear what his purpose is: he's an alien who is going to end all life on Earth. Sakurai is itching for a conspiratorial scoop, so it's a great career opportunity ... and also, going along with it prevents his new friend from sucking his identity out of his brain. Win-win.
Last but not least there's Shinji (Ryûhei Matsuda), a middle-class man in his early 30s going through a rocky patch with his wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa). There was already a distance between them - mostly on account of an affair he recently had - when he suddenly begins acting alarmingly strange, blank, unresponsive. As if sleepwalking. He wanders the neighborhood and asks odd questions of people - his wife, her sister, their neighbors - and his detachment initially comes across as cruel aloofness to the already-betrayed Narumi.
It's through this relationship that Before We Vanish eventually takes its most unexpected direction. For a film with a Body Snatchers-like premise - and notes of Dark City, Being There, Get Out, Starman and Vonnegut - its biggest surprise is that it becomes a sort of roundabout romantic comedy concerning the rehabilitation of a failing marriage. Shinji and Narumi are quite literally getting to know each other, again, for the first time (doesn't that sound like the cheesy tagline for an American romcom?) - she just doesn't quite realize it, at least not at first. Of our three otherworldly visitors, it seems he's the only one taking his newfound knowledge to heart. He has the same goal as his fellow invaders - accrue knowledge, meet up with the other two, exterminate the human race - but what he absorbs from, and about, the species he's appropriating haunts and complicates his mindset in a way that doesn't seem to affect the other two. Call it empathy. Although the truly empathetic figure in all this is Narumi, whose indefatigable effort to understand what's going on with her husband - or whoever he is - and make whatever it is they have work becomes as much an evolutionary through-line for the film as an emotional one. The film's preoccupation with the reprogramming of human behaviors and priorities is simultaneously viewed through a personal prism and a cataclysmic one. Under the shadow of destruction, Vanish touches on - challenges - the emotions and mentalities that inhibit us and drive us, trap us and save us. Personal growth as a precursor to cosmic existential consequences.
The early scenes between the Narumi and the near-catatonic Shinji bear an unintentional resemblance to the Dougie Jones storyline from Twin Peaks: The Return - although not to nearly the same absurdist heights - its offbeat tone guided by a score that seems like it belongs in an American suburban comedy from the early 1990s. The way Kurosawa juggles his sometimes ill-fitting tones is key to how well Before We Vanish works. From dry paranoia to easygoing farce. A fish-out-of-water movie as casually, brutally violent as it is sweetly optimistic. The hover of apocalyptic dread answered by a therapeutic comedy for the human race itself. Or to put it more succinctly: It's hard to explain. Which is just how Kurosawa prefers it.