While it was clear during the 1970s and 1980s that genre cinema was thriving, it wasn’t wholly obvious that the era’s horror and science-fiction efforts would, thirty-plus years later, prove such fertile inspirational ground for ensuing generations. Nonetheless, as evidenced by the blockbuster success of IT, the hype-building for October’s second season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, and the announcements that Jamie Lee Curtis will reprise her role as Laurie Strode in a new Halloween reboot, and that Linda Hamilton will be returning to the Terminator franchise, those decades continue to loom large over our current pop-culture landscape. And their spirit has perhaps never been channeled in such a uniquely off-kilter way as it by Before We Vanish, a Japanese alien invasion saga (making its stateside debut this Friday at Fantastic Fest, followed by its Saturday, September 30 showing at the New York Film Festival) that’s as interested in humanity as its not-of-this-world visitors.
In fact, both the film and its central extraterrestrials are fascinated by what makes us Earthlings tick. That focus on people rather than spectacle is in keeping with the oeuvre of acclaimed director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who helped redefine modern horror cinema in 1997 with Cure (arguably the most haunting serial-killer noir ever) and again in 2001 with Pulse (a ghost story infused with unbearable existential dread) – both of which balanced gory scares with incisive social analysis. Kurosawa is a filmmaker who embraces genre cinema’s upfront pleasures while also using stock conventions and scenarios for left-field inquiries into the nature of cultures, societies, and individual thought and behavior. Thus, it’s no surprise to discover that with Before We Vanish, he delivers a doomsday nightmare that’s fixated, first and foremost, on internal turmoil.
Kurosawa’s film begins in chilling fashion, with a goldfish being plucked from a bowl, followed by the sight of a young schoolgirl named Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu) carrying said pet in a plastic bag into a house. As the camera zooms into the exterior of the front door, an older woman bursts forth screaming, only to be dragged back inside. Cut to the residence’s interior, where the camera documents unmistakable signs of a struggle before settling on the girl standing over two dismembered corpses, her bemused expression leading her to examine her blood-drenched hand – and, also, to lick it for good measure. Then, with awkward movements that suggest she isn’t quite comfortable in her own skin, she proceeds down the middle of a busy street, so disinterested in everything around her that she can only crack a deviant smile when her presence causes a truck and car to horribly collide behind her.
Akira, as it turns out, is an alien, and she’s in search of her two comrades, whom Before We Vanish soon introduces. First, there’s cheery Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), who visits Akira’s house and winds up meeting Weekly World reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa). Hearing that Amano is an alien, and thus convinced that he’s stumbled upon a great story, Sakurai chooses to join the kid as his “guide.” Meanwhile, somewhere on the other side of Tokyo, unhappily married Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) tries to cope with the odd behavior of her husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), who responds to her with genial politeness and seems unnaturally clueless about the basics of day-to-day life. As she comes to understand, the reason for his makeover is that, like Akira and Amano, he’s been “possessed” by an extraterrestrial sent to Earth to prepare for an impending invasion. And should that arrival come to pass, the outlook for mankind is, shall we say, bleak.
What distinguishes Before We Vanish from so many of its subgenre brethren is that, throughout, Kurosawa cares little for outsized pageantry; save for a few sequences in which Akira manhandles adversaries with expert combat moves, as well as a late drone attack, the emphasis is on the trio’s efforts to gather information about mankind by “taking” their “conceptions” of basic human understanding. To do so, they have their subjects concentrate on a given concept – “family,” “work,” “possession” – and then they tap those individuals on the head, thus transferring the idea into their own minds. It’s a novel information-gathering technique for the aliens, as well as a weirdly liberating experience for the donors, who – in a satirical twist – find themselves thrilled to be newly ignorant of their burdensome life-defining beliefs.
Before We Vanish thus plays out like a bizarro-world riff on John Carpenter’s 1984 Jeff Bridges-Karen Allen hit Starman, especially given that the material’s emotional center is the dynamic between Shinji and Narumi, the latter of whom finds herself both exasperated by her E.T.-spouse’s wacko conduct, and also surprisingly happy about his transformation. Thus, a romance is rekindled, playing out in suburban fields, strip-mall parking lots and industrial areas that, as with so much of Kurosawa’s work, have an alienating quality to them – thus underlining the characters’ yearning for understanding of, and connection with, each other.
That need for comprehension, and reciprocated affection, courses throughout Before We Vanish, providing a sturdy thematic backbone to a story that’s often as funny as it is poignant. Marked by the director’s unsettling and droll visuals, as well as a score that occasionally dips its toes in the ‘80s-synthesizer waters, the film drums up humor from Sakurai’s growing friendship with Amano and Akira, which is complicated by his confusion over wanting to help them achieve their apocalyptic ends. And it delivers some familiar, if eccentrically handled, action-suspense via a group of military men who travel around in a black van hunting for the aliens, and who soon trick Sakurai into being an asset for their save-the-planet mission.
As one might expect from a tale about aliens educating themselves about inherent human concepts, love – specifically, the resurrected strain that blossoms between Narumi and Shinji – invariably throws a wrench in the invaders’ plans. Even then, however, Before We Vanish rejects pat happily-ever-after answers to its dramatic dilemmas. Instead, Kurosawa’s alternately amusing, disquieting and moving film recognizes that, when something vital is gained, something else is often lost – and that our desire to fight against that loss, together, for ourselves and each other, is ultimately at the heart of the human struggle.