Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Before We Vanish” may be a sci-fi thriller about an alien attack and brain-drain à la “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but its ultimate message is the salvation of love. Playing frequently like an absurdist political satire with only flashes of violence, this low-tension, drawn-out work won’t gratify the chills or adrenaline rushes fanboys crave, but the ending strikes a romantic chord so pure that all but the most jaded cynics will be moved. Distributed in Europe through Wild Bunch,the film will rely heavily on Kurosawa’s reputation and longtime supporters even for moderate success.
The literal Japanese title, “Strolling Invaders,” suggests a threat so casual it’s not immediately noticeable. In light of how press freedom and human rights are being whittled away in many parts of the world, a story about aliens robbing humans of their values (family, work, rules) and ability to think independently can easily be read as an allegory of collective brainwashing. But Kurosawa takes a more ambivalent stance by suggesting that sometimes being rid of socially conditioned thoughts is not such a bad thing, as when the female protagonist’s boss regresses to prankish childishness after losing the concept of work. Repeatedly, the aliens remind the protagonists that humans are such scumbags they deserve eventual extinction anyway.
The emotional toll of marriage is at the heart of nearly all of the director’s film, from such horror movies as “Cure” and “Creepy” to his dramas, including “Tokyo Sonata” and “Journey to the Shore.” In this case, the movie starts with and revolves around illustrator Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) and her estranged husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda). One day, Shinji returns home after a long walk a changed person, with little recollection of the past and lacking basic social skills. To Narumi, this is a godsend, as it presents a chance for them to do over, so she even shrugs off a weird incident, when he gives her sister Asumi (Atsuko Maeda) a mini-breakdown just by poking her with his finger.
Meanwhile, a gruesome murder in their quiet Tokyo neighbourhood catches the eye of journalist Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa). When he arrives at the crime scene, he learns that Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), the teenage daughter of the victims, has gone missing. A young man called Amano (Mahiro Takasugi) comes up to Sakurai asking him to be his “guide” so this visitor can acclimatize himself to Earth.
The story, adapted from a play by Tomohiro Maekawa, does not try to wring any suspense from the odd behavior, disclosing early on that Shinji, Amano and Akira are aliens who have taken up residence inside their human hosts. As the first step to a full-scale invasion, they have to seize and absorb human “concepts and power of comprehension.” For the most part, Amano and Sakurai engage in long-winded theoretic discussions that have little dramatic traction. Akira, who has a violent streak, pumps up the action with her vicious assault on humans who get in her way, but such scenes are few and far between.
All these plot strands pale in comparison to the engaging relationship between Shinji and Narumi, which has shades of “The Return of Martin Guerre.”Although the alien initially intended to use her as guide, the more he comes to understand human behavior, the more he grows attached to her. He’s perplexed by this connection, entering a church at one point to ask what love is, prompting a reading of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 by the pastor (Masahiro Higashide, who ironically played a carnivorous alien in “Parasyte”).
The scene’s true resonance doesn’t emerge until the very end, when Narumi makes an astounding decision that not only proves the redemptive power of love but redeems the film from its many flaws. Ultimately, “Before We Vanish” serves as an inquiry into what constitutes humanity. However, while it recalls Kurosawa’s classic “Pulse” in visualizing an uncaring social structure disintegrating into apocalyptic chaos, it’s insistent faith in the individual conscience makes it the antithesis of the earlier film’s nihilist despair.
In recent years, Nagasawa has transitioned nicely from her earlier career as a teen sweetheart to more serious roles. Here, she’s engagingly sympathetic as the wife who pretends to give up on her unfaithful husband, only to reveal a deep capacity to love and forgive. Matsuda, who maintains a placid mien, complemented by his marble complexion looks suitably android-like, making his transformation after an epiphany all the more startling.
Kurosawa turn to his trusted crew once again, getting clean camerawork from Akiko Ashizawa and a score by Yusuke Hayashi that shifts fluidly from racy to lyrical, although Kichi Takahashi’s editing is uneven and could do with a lot more tightening.