Leave it to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, our favorite director of B movies that look like art films (or are they the other way around?), to upturn the nostalgia for American blockbusters of the 1980s. Japan’s modern day Don Siegel or Robert Aldrich, who admires in equal parts Jean-Luc Godard and, based on his new film Before We Vanish, John Carpenter, does Super 8, Midnight Special and Stranger Things one better by jumping off from 30-year-old conventions and making a damn good film.
A bloody prologue of a massacred family and the dazzled schoolgirl culprit (Yuri Tsunematsu) suggests Kurosawa is squarely back in the horror-thriller genre he is best known for, but the film’s tone and our expectations are suddenly taken an entirely other way by Yusuke Hayashi’s soundtrack shifting to a plucky comic theme. We learn that the girl is one of three aliens who have arrived on earth and inhabit human bodies, awkwardly learning how to move and talk properly, quietly reaping “conceptions” from people around them when they come across unknown human terms.
This concept-harvesting, like so much in the movie, is done simply and effectively: hypnotic words spoken (“what is ‘self’? Be specific”), the victim’s mind goes slack, a finger reaches out, “I'll take that,” and the concept is forever removed from the person, leaving them alive but strangely impaired. The three aliens select two “guides” whom they won't hurt, and who will escort them around: a cynical journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) looking for a story accompanies the two more murderous aliens who inhabit the bodies of indifferent teenagers (Tsunematsu and Mahiro Takasugi); and a woman (Masami Nagasawa) whose cheating husband (Ryuhei Matsuda) is taken by the third alien, leaving her to feel out their broken relationship through this amnesiac empty vessel. The scope of the film begins to expand as these small scale relationships start interacting with others—the detective tasked with watching the young girl has his understanding of "self" removed, as does the woman's boss with "work"—yet the journalist and woman go through throes of doubt and belief over whether they're witnessing pranks, an epidemic illness, or something truly alien. As in an American movie, the government tries to step in, first innocuously—hinting of a mere health scare—and then taking more violent action.
Ghost story, goofy comedy, marital melodrama, rebel youth film, action movie and, of course, sci-fi: Kurosawa adroitly mines this eerie scenario, which he co-wrote from Tomohiro Maekawa’s novel, for all its weird tensions, terrors, jokes, cuteness and unease. Working with clearly a larger budget, a CinemaScope frame, creative dashes of CGI, and more conventional editing, Before We Vanish looks and feels like Kurosawa’s most mainstream film in ages, slick and satisfying if you can jump into the deep end of its elastic mood shifts. Its dynamism and freedom to try things calls back to the pre-fame wacko genre films the director made in the mid-90s, like the Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself series. Playful conceits of multiple genres are helpfully choreographed by the virtuoso and varied score, and Kurosawa’s off-kilter sense of artificiality masterfully flip-flops from comedy to existential seriousness in a film that pings Hitchcock and Starman to ask brutal questions about human nature. Immensely fun and impeccably made—Kurosawa being one of those filmmakers where each cut reveals intriguing if not uncanny new spaces where anything may lurk—Before We Vanish showcases just how few filmmakers know the tools of expression and play at their disposal—as well as their film history—as thoroughly as Kiyoshi Kurosawa.