Before We Vanish is a return to a rarely-seen side of Kiyoshi Kurosawa – a puckish, tongue-in-cheek take on the atmospheric horror that is the master’s stock-in-trade. Though he’s much better known for his deadly serious supernatural horror like Kairo (Pulse) and Cure, Kurosawa aficionados have always been aware of his goofier side, showcased in the blackly comic Doppelganger and the obscure (but quite fun) v-cinema gangster series Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself. Before We Vanish leans in hard to the deadpan with its tale of confused and confusing aliens attempting a takeover of Earth.
While the film has horrific elements – opening with a scene of slaughter and the striking image of a goldfish wriggling on a bloody floor – the apocalyptic tone is weirdly low-key, helped by an oddly jaunty score. Both the aliens and the humans they encounter are strangely blasé about the coming invasion, so focused on interpersonal issues that the end of the world threatens to arrive with a whimper instead of a bang.
It helps that we never see what the aliens look like in the film, as they choose to inhabit our skins and infiltrate, in the style of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Under the Skin. But they are not emotionless drones. In order to acclimate themselves, they have the ability to steal concepts from human beings, for examples the concepts of “work” or “possession,” leaving both themselves and their unwitting donors changed. And they have fully formed personalities, perhaps influenced by their hosts, ranging from viciously violent to passive and curious. The actors and actresses do some fantastic work, turning in odd physical performances that invoke someone used to a different bodily shape crammed into human form, as with the extraterrestrial beings in Alan Moore’s Providence.
Naturally, Ryuhei Matsuda excels as Shinji Kase, the least on-mission of the alien trio. Matsuda has always exuded an otherworldly quality in films like Taboo and Nightmare Detective, a trait he turns up to 11 here to portray a vaguely sweet invader, baffled by human concepts like love and family and grappling with a wife (the great Masami Nagasawa) who can’t quite wrap her head around the changes to her spouse.
Kurosawa’s previous Creepy and Daguerreotype had me worried he was in a rut, but Before We Vanish feels fresh and new. Not only is Before We Vanish a uncommon venture into sci-fi (based on an acclaimed play), it’s also a rare opportunity Kurosawa to indulge in fight choreography, an exceptional event in his films, which frequently involve violence but seldom the sort of high-kicking, bullet-flying clashes you might expect in an action film. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone really throw down in a Kurosawa movie outside of Beautiful New Bay Area Project, a 2013 short film oddity, but like that film, Before We Vanish has some real physicality on display, with genuine beatdowns and even some gun battles. Between the return of his sly sense of humor, and his venture into new themes and territory, I’m looking forward to seeing more of Kurosawa’s latter-day renaissance.
3 out of 4 stars (Very good). Before We Vanish opens in theaters on February 2.