By turns hilarious, thrilling and profound, Before We Vanish reminds audiences of the continued strength of one of Japanese cinema’s most unique auteurs—and the value of the human spirit.



Before We Vanish (2017)

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa and Mahiro Takasugi

Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka
Running time: 129 minutes

Based on a theatrical play by Tomohiro Maekawa

In his 20th film, Kiyoshi Kurosawa reinvents the alien movie as a unique and profoundly human tale of love and mystery. Three aliens travel to Earth on a reconnaissance mission in preparation for a mass invasion.

“A Japanese Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit with a gentler, more philosophical bent.”

What does it mean to be human, to possess a human soul? These are not answers we typically look for in alien invasion films. But of course, auteur director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is anything but typical. Initially labelled as a purveyor of nihilistic horror (with films like Pulse and Cure), he expanded beyond the genre with the brilliant family drama Tokyo Sonata and the French period piece Daguerreotype. His new film, Before We Vanish, plays like a Japanese Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit with a gentler, more philosophical bent.

After going missing for several days, Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda) mysteriously reappears, acting nothing like his former self. His estranged wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) finds the new Shinji calmer and kinder than before, something which only serves to exasperate her further. Awkward, physically uncertain and unable to grasp basic human concepts, he adopts a bizarre new daily routine of strolling around the neighbourhood and engaging strangers in deep, conceptual conversations for no apparent purpose.

Elsewhere in town, a family is brutally murdered. A schoolgirl stands over the corpses, tasting the blood on her fingers. Journalist Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) begins to investigate the odd circumstance of the killing. He learns that the killer Akira, the teenage daughter of the victims, has gone missing. A young man called Amano approaches Sakurai asking him to be his “guide.” He explains that he, Shinji and Akira are aliens, on Earth to gather information and acclimatize themselves in preparation for an impending invasion and extermination of the human race. Soon a shadowy government organization has occupied the town. Military helicopters and drones fill the skies, the world spirals toward apocalyptic chaos, and Sakurai and Narumi each struggle to understand what is happening.

Both thematically and narratively, Before We Vanish is a very busy film. It is also uncharacteristically humorous, particularly in the opening half. The byplay between Nagasawa and Matsuda is light and genuinely funny while the reactions of those robbed of their “concepts” by the alien agents—through a simple one-finger tap to the forehead—is, amusingly, one of joyous relief as the burden of their defining beliefs is lifted. As the film enters its second half the mood darkens considerably, Kurosawa ratchets up his signature sense of dread and impending violence, and the emotional stakes take on an unbearable intensity. Through-out, the aliens’ baffled quest to understand fundamental humanity challenges the audience to pose the same questions to themselves.

Kurosawa effectively taps into the current climate of global unease. But the pervasive doom is leavened in the hope-tinged ambiguity of a climax involving a dramatic, unexpected act of altruism and love by Narumi. Before We Vanish is not an easy film to categorize but one that will both engage the intellect and quicken the pulse. Kurosawa is back with his strongest film of the decade.

Kurosawa also created an acclaimed TV mini-series based on the same play by Tomohiro Maekawa but focusing on a different set of characters facing the same invasion scenario. The theatrical cut, called Foreboding—The Movie, also received rave reviews in Japan and will premiere at this year’s Toronto Japanese Film Festival.

Before We Vanish is currently in select cinemas and will be screened at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on March 29.