Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a Japanese filmmaker who has never been conventional in his approach to the genres that made his name. His most famous titles—like Pulse and Curse—may have attracted an audience through their supernatural shenanigans and blood-letting, but they made a mark due to the deep sense existential dread and themes about the human condition that Kurosawa gently teased out between his scares. On the surface, his latest film Before We Vanish is one of his most straight forward and even unexpectedly (for him) sensationalistic efforts. It’s a twist on the old Body Snatchers sci-fi/horror trope that’s gotten plenty of mileage since the 50s. Of course, coming from Kurosawa that already symbolism-heavy body snatching genre is turned on its head and filled with even more potent ideas.
As unconventional of a Japanese horror effort as Before We Vanish might be, it starts out in a manner very familiar to anyone who dabbles in Japanese genre fare. We see an evil teen girl in a school uniform (Yuri Tsunematsu) blow some stuff up and murder a few folks with a machine gun. We don’t know why at first, but we slowly learn that she’s an alien inhabiting a human body along with her partner (Mahiro Takasugi). They’re scouts sent from an alien race to learn what humanity’s weaknesses are before they launch an invasion. They soon cross paths with a neurotic and selfish journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) who has a hard time convincing anyone else about what he’s learned and an even harder time deciding if he wants to become the hero he needs to be to help save the planet. Meanwhile, there’s also a third human possessed by an alien (Ryuhei Matsuda). This one was shoved into the body of a cheating husband and while his wife (Masami Nagasawa) was initially confused by the changes, she soon finds that the alien is a more satisfying partner than her husband.
Taken entirely at face value, the flick is a damn fun genre ride. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s usual deadpan sense of surrealist humour is at full effect at all times. He’s in a playful mood with the style and cheapo special effects all designed to look like a relic of the 80s. There’s far more action in Before We Vanish than usually slips into his films, always expertly designed if often bumping up against genre expectations. As the possessions and alien tomfoolery expand, things get decidedly creepy and uncanny. The movie takes place several layers away from reality and Kurosawa delights in thrusting his viewers into frightening scenarios that they can’t even begin to grasp rationally. It’s a sometimes silly, sometimes harsh genre romp that toys with conventions and expectations throughout its long yet undeniably gripping running time.
Thankfully there’s more to Before We Vanish than just the giddy surface. As always, Kurosawa has some ideas on his mind that he works out through genre entertainment. He touches on themes of contemporary disconnect and miscommunication as well as the ways in which identity can disappear and the horror of losing that sense of self-control/understanding. He positions his journalist character as a traditional hero in this sort of story, then explores how most people— in real life—wouldn’t be able to cope when handed that sort of world-saving responsibility. Then there’s the bizarre twist on the Starman style woman/alien love story. He toys with how love might be an exclusively human emotion and whether or not life without love is worth living. There is lots of material to chew on that’s all wrapped up in a package that includes a vintage Ghostbusters-style neon lightshow of an invasion and multiple Japanese school girl massacres. You know, the good stuff.
Make no mistake, Before We Vanish is hardly a perfect movie. There are pacing and logic flaws throughout, since Kiyoshi Kurosawa moves to the beat of no one’s drum but his own. It’ll frustrate viewers who come purely for the genre thrills as well as the snooty art house types who might be surprised how comparatively light an effort this is for the filmmaker. Yet, give yourself over to the deeply strange rhythms, ideas, and influences at play in this latest Kurosawa joint and it’s hard not to be hypnotized by its oddball charms. It’s been just long enough since we had another twist on the Body Snatchers trope (Edgar Wright’s At World’s End) and Kurosawa’s entry into that incredibly specific subgenre is not only worthy, but filled with countless odd digressions, images, and ideas only he could dream up. In the deadly winter movie months where quality dips down to the bottom of the barrel, watching a genre movie this unique and alive is something of a revitalizing miracle.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!
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