In this Japanese science fiction oddity, three aliens come down to earth to scout for an impending invasion. The unfortunate hosts — a boy (Mahiro Takasugi), a teenage girl (Yuri Tsunematsu) and a young married man (Ryuhei Matsuda) – look the same but become cold and emotionless. Their task: to learn about the human race.
They do this by encouraging a human victim to think of (to picture, ideally) a certain feeling, concept or idea — and an E.T.-inspired touch to the forehead (shot with Close Encounters of the Third Kind-like lens flare; a simple, but effective visual technique) will transfer these “conceptions” to the alien. This leaves the victim without that particular piece of information, as if it has been stolen from them. A boss, when drained of “work,” will throw paper planes around the office and smash up important models, for example.
The subtext of this Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque scenario is muddled but seems to boil down to a critique of an increasingly depersonalized society. The one human idea the aliens struggle with most is that of “self,” but, as is revealed, it’s something that many of us seem to have lost in a society that seemingly encourages lying to elevate oneself.
Before We Vanish is an adaptation of a popular Japanese stage play, and the tone jumps around from sincere to playful to horrifying. The opening scene sees the aftermath of a brutally violent act, and the blood-splattered rooms set up a film that won’t skimp on savagery. But then it does just that. Flashes of extreme violence, performed quite physically by Tsunematsu, are made to seem positively comical as bullet holes and scarlet blooms are noticeably lacking. Now, that isn’t a problem for Battle Royale, but that film grounds its horrors with a sense of life and intense survival instinct.
While charming, the score doesn’t help in that regard. It channels Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful sci-fi minimalism, Michael Giacchino’s rousing work with Pixar and a Ghibli-esque sentimentality. It’s a huge swathe of emotions that composer Yûsuke Hayashi has to navigate, and the music is often beautiful, though it never fully blends in with the action on screen.
As the film progresses, two distinct groups of characters form; Shinji and his wife (Masami Nagasawa), and the other two aliens and their “guide,” a human helper they promise to leave untouched — in this case, a journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) who doesn’t believe them, at first, but soon falls deep down the rabbit hole. It’s an effective form of storytelling, with the second group working through the high concept exposition and the first exploring the human stakes. The performances are also strong across the board, especially from the alien characters, who have to play both excitable humor and a sinister otherworldliness.
More than a stage play, the high concept and tonal spasms make Before We Vanish feel like an adaptation of a cult manga. But, despite its messiness, Kurosawa’s film manages to hold interest throughout and, after some wild scenes of confusing character motivation in the third act, reaches a moment of real poignancy in its final scene.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.