by Jeremy Clarke.
Part relationship drama, part love story, part comedy, part science fiction, Before We Vanish is the latest movie by Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa to hit UK Blu-ray and may be his strangest ever film. This is saying a lot for a director whose filmography includes horror movies like Pulse (2001), ghost stories like Journey to the Shore (2015) and crime movies like Creepy (2016). Before We Vanish represents the director’s first foray into science fiction. It’s an alien invasion story based on a stage play by Tomohiro Maekawa. To make it marketable for the movie trailer, towards the end he throws in a sequence of a protagonist fleeing a series of explosions as missiles rain down from the sky. Yet the basic premise doesn’t fit the typical alien invasion mould at all.
The aliens here look just like humans. If you’re expecting alien make-up prosthetics, you’ll be disappointed. More precisely, the aliens have taken over the bodies of their hapless human hosts, and exactly what happened to the original occupants is never clarified. This device has been used elsewhere in sci-fi for instance in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and goes back to the horror staple of demonic possession which was around as an idea centuries before the advent of the cinematograph.
The aliens’ problem is that they don’t understand many human concepts, making their interactions with humans far from easy. In order to understand the occupants of the planet they intend to conquer, the aliens steal concepts from individual humans’ minds – one human and one concept at a time. The alien first gets his or her subject to picture a concept then, ET-like, touches their finger to the subject’s forehead to transfer it. The immediate effect on humans is physical collapse and when an alien takes a particular concept from a human, the human loses it forever. Those humans from whom concepts have been stolen behave in a variety of unusual ways depending on exactly what concept has been stolen.
When the concept of ‘family’ is stolen from Asumi Kase (Atsuko Maeda), she is so horrified by the familiarity of her sister-in-law Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) she leaves her home and goes back to Tokyo. Later, freelance illustrator Narumi sees her hard-nosed client Suzuki (Ken Mitsuishi) turned into a playful fool lacking any sense of responsibility after ‘work’ is stolen from him. And some time after ‘possessions’ are stolen from Maruo (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) he can be seen on the street giving a speech about abandoning ownership because it’s the cause of all conflict and war.
Each alien also assigns themself a human ‘guide’ to help them navigate the human world. Because they need the guide with faculties intact they don’t steal concepts from them. Narumi Kase is one of these guides although she’s not immediately aware of the fact. She was all set to give her husband Shinji a hard time because he recently took a female colleague on a work trip for reasons that had little to do with work. However in the interim, as he explains to her, he’s been taken over by an alien and has no knowledge of these past events. So now she must adjust to life with a man who looks like her husband but is an alien. Can she find it in her heart to love him? For his part, can Shinji even conceive of love?
While the Kase plot strand slowly closes in on these big ideas and veers towards romantic melodrama with a lush orchestral score, a parallel plot opens with alien schoolgirl Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu) turning a quiet suburban house into a bloodbath. She then saunters along a road causing a serious traffic accident before being tracked down by fellow alien Amano (Mahiro Takasugi) and his guide the Weekly World reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) who has secured exclusive rights to the alien invasion story from Amano, and drives him around in a van with a satellite aerial on top. Subsequent sequences involving these three include some particularly violent and action-oriented set-pieces for the girl who throws male humans around as if they were lightweights.
For its new Blu-ray release, Arrow has secured a worthwhile Making Of which runs the best part of an hour and contains useful insights from both director and cast. Additional short promotional featurettes Inside the Story and Inside the Characters make nice extras although to some extent they recycle the same material. Also included is a discussion by the five main cast members, Red Carpet interviews from Cannes and Q&As from four Japanese screenings. A trailer completes the disc contents.
So full of potential did the basic premise of aliens, concept theft and human guides underlying Before We Vanish prove to Kurosawa that, after completing this movie for cinema release, he completely rebooted and rewrote it as five hour mini-series Foreboding: Before We Vanish for Japan’s WOWOW satellite channel with a different story and brand new alien, human and guide characters. It’s quite an improvement over the original Before We Vanish as if having made the film once as a multi-genre exercise he decided to redo it as pure science fiction.
The subsequent edit of the series into the feature Yocho a.k.a. Foreboding for international film festivals suggests he wanted this second version to be seen as widely as the first. Indeed both screened in the London East Asia Film Festival in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Hopefully Arrow will also put Yocho out on Blu-ray in due course. For now, though, and to whet your appetite, this disc of Before We Vanish is most welcome.
Before We Vanish is released on by Arrow Blu-ray and Digital HD on 11th February 2019.