Watching the dreadful and painfully distended films Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa made over the last 10 years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was abducted in 2008 and hijacked by a clueless alien parasite trying to keep up appearances. A major figure during the early days of J-horror, Kurosawa distilled the entropy creeping into the digital age before most other artists even felt it — modern classics like “Cure,” “Pulse,” and even the less-horrifying likes of “Bright Future” continue to serve as invaluable time capsules from the era that we’re still trying to escape.
As recently as “Tokyo Sonata,” which is now almost a decade old, it seemed as though Kurosawa could sublimate his obsessions with societal decay into any genre, and the shattering final scene of that film left fans desperate to see where he would go next.
Then, things got bad. The falloff was subtle at first, and it came in small doses, but then the movies got longer. It’s rumored that no human has ever made it to the end of 2015’s “Journey to the Shore,” and 2016’s “Daguerreotype” — which saw Kurosawa decamping to Europe for a turgid supernatural melodrama with the likes of Olivier Gourmet and Mathieu Amalric — was even worse. At a certain point, it became easier to give up than to hold out hope.
Now, Kurosawa is back with a work that has seen him readmitted into the highest echelons of film society. “Before We Vanish” premiered at Cannes on its way to the New York Film Festival, and, uh… it definitely complicates the narrative. An alien invasion story that marries the shlock of classic sci-fi movies with the sterile intellectualism that defines the director’s work, the movie is every bit as bloated as his last few, but its charms remind us of his great potential (and potential greatness).
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It begins with the kind of winking smirk that we haven’t seen from Kurosawa in ages. Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), a schoolgirl in small-town Japan, has vanished after gruesomely slaughtering her entire family. The opening credits kick in as we watch her walk down the middle of a highway with blood splattered across her uniform and an oblivious smile etched across her face. Tsunematsu will be involved in some shockingly artful fight scenes a few reels later, but that prologue is really as violent as “Before We Vanish” ever gets.
Kurosawa devotees will be unsurprised to learn that the movie is a lot more slow and sedate than its first scene might suggest. There are three aliens in total, all of whom are similarly blunt about their plans to invade Earth and eliminate most human life, but they seem to be pretty chill about the whole thing.
The second host is a young man named Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), who might be the most sinister and playful of the group. He encounters an ambulance-chasing journalist named Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), and the two roam the countryside in search of Akira. This setup gives the alien plenty of time to explain his agenda, and he does so in great detail, telling Sakurai about how the extraterrestrials like to “collect conceptions” from the species they plan to erase. That process, we learn, involves goading human subjects into thinking clearly about a specific concept (such as “work” or “family”), and then zapping it out of their brains with a quick finger touch to the head. In vintage Kurosawa fashion, the victims are completely blissed out to be liberated from these social constructs.
So are some of the people they know. When the third alien slips into the body of a salaryman named Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), effectively turning him into a Japanese Dougie Jones, his wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) couldn’t be happier about it. She must have loved him once, but the man was in dire need of a thorough deprogramming. This thread provides the heart and soul of a movie that seldom admits to having much of either, as Narumi’s feelings for Shinji are considerably more complicated than any of the big ideas that Kurosawa is investigating.
For that reason, “Before We Vanish” doesn’t really improve when its various storylines finally knot together, even if there are some fun things to see along the way (one favorite: Narumi’s misogynist boss, who’s alleviated from a certain concept and immediately starts throwing paper airplanes around the office). Each individual episode touches on how words can trip us up and trap us together, but Kurosawa fails to bring that sentiment to life, and his overarching thesis about the power of the individual consciousness doesn’t really take root until the shlocky third act, which involves a lot of bad rear-projection and a man dodging missiles from a flimsy CG drone.
“Desire for things we don’t need creates the fear that someone might take them,” someone deadpans, and losing the things that make us who we are is the best way to illustrate our collective need for individual identity. “Before We Vanish” makes viewers walk a mile to reach conclusions that were only a minute away, but such heady and optimistic principles are still a step in the right direction for Kurosawa, whose previous film built to the stunning revelation that 19th-century photography was actually a lot less interesting than it looks. The director’s latest is another in a long line of needlessly torpid journeys, but in showing some faith in the future, Kurosawa earns back a bit of our faith in him.
“Before We Vanish” is playing at the 2017 New York Film Festival. Neon will distribute it in the United States.