Film Review: Before We Vanish

An uneven but worthwhile meditation on the human spirit.
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Kiyoshi Kurosawa weaves a handful of stranger-in-a-strange-land tropes together in new and interesting ways in the darkly comic alien-invasion drama Before We Vanish.

There’s a bit of Starman in the film’s premise—a trio of extraterrestrials come down to Earth, hitching a ride in the consciousness of a schoolgirl (Yuri Tsunematsu), a surly teenage boy (Mahiro Takasugi) and a young professional (Ryuhei Matsuda) whose relationship with his wife, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), has been put under strain by his infidelity. Through their interactions with humankind—including Narumi and an initially skeptical journalist, Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), who serve as the aliens’ “Guides”—the aliens begin to understand such human concepts as “self,” “family” and “freedom.” All is happy and hopeful—or would be, save that the aliens have been sent to Earth as a sort of scout team to pave the way for the planet’s invasion and humanity’s wholesale demise.

Co-writers Kurosawa and Tanaka, working off a play by Tomohiro Maekawa, aren’t interested in telling a story of humankind’s plucky resistance to their imminent destruction. Indeed, Sakurai and Narumi more or less accept with a shrug that A) aliens exist and B) they’re going to kill everyone in a matter of days. Narumi never even seems all that upset that her husband, estranged through he is, has been partially taken over by an alien consciousness. It puts the film on an offbeat wavelength that’s tough, at first, to lock onto. If you do, you’ll be rewarded. There’s something of an emotional distance at play, and if that makes it difficult to connect to the characters on an individual level, it also gives Kurosawa room to explore with dark wit and insight the state of modern humanity as a whole.

The Japan presented in Before We Vanish is one that’s been worn down to a sort of numb acceptance, its citizens stuck in a rut, just going through the motions every day lest the constant barrage of the modern world drive them insane. (There’s doubtless a lot specific to Japanese culture here—with its environmental disasters over the last few years alone, the country hasn’t exactly had an easy time of it—but this American viewer found a lot to relate to in Before We Vanish’s depiction of nationwide shellshock. I’ll leave it up to you to guess why.) As the aliens absorb “conceptions” from the humans they come into contact with, the humans lose those “conceptions” themselves—in the process giving them a blank slate, allowing them to re-examine their lives with fresh eyes. The fact that, unbeknownst to them, their lives will be over in a few days comprises part of Before We Vanish’s unqiue charm.

Its blend of nihilism and hopefulness keeps Before We Vanish interesting on a macro level, even if on a micro level Kurosawa’s choices aren’t always successful. For example: One understands the point of juxtaposing scenes of violence (let’s just say one of the aliens has less respect for human life than the others) with a twinkly score that calls to mind nothing so much as ’50s sitcoms—but damn, is that score overbearing. The dark comedy elements of the film work, but the drama surrounding Narumi’s relationship with her husband…not so much, considering how the human characters are far and away more relatable and interesting in their existential struggles than their alien counterparts. There’s a lot going on here—melodrama, comedy, action, sci-fi, social commentary—and the cacophony of it all, combined with Before We Vanish’s 130-minute runtime, makes the film a bit of a slog. Still, enough of what Kurosawa has put into play works that his film remains a unique, profound and bold bit of filmmaking.

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