My notes on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Sanpo suru shinryakusha (Before We Vanish) an intriguing mismatch between the mild visuals of Kyoshi Kurosawa’s film – which mostly involve casual, low-key characters ambling around a small Japanese town – and the full-blooded score by Yusuke Hayashi, which offers all the off-kilter, ominous, hyper-dramatic sounds of a 1950s science fiction film. Based on a play by Tomohiro Maekawa, this is a distinctive take on the alien invasion theme, with deliberate riffs on Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I Married a Monster From Outer Space, but a very Japanese sense that this could also be a prequel to The Mysterians or Goke Bodysnatcher From Hell.
Kurosawa has played with science fiction before, notably in Kairo (Pulse), but is better known for his horror, suspense and slice of life dramas – all of which manage a unique sense of unease. The aliens here casually assume that wiping out humanity will not only be good for the planet but not even that much big of a deal, and Kurosawa often seems to share their attitude – though this struggles towards a humane transcendence, revolving around an understated (of course) but commanding, subtle performance from Masami Nagasawa as Narumi, a commercial illustrator who finds that the blank slate her alien-invaded husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda) becomes is slightly preferable to the perhaps-sleazy guy he used to be. It opens with an alien consciousness mistakenly inhabiting a goldfish then leaping to a human host which it curiously disembowels with its new hands before settling in sailor-suited schoolgirl Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), who wanders away from the site of an apparent massacre. Journo Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) doesn’t get far at the crime scene but is accosted by Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), another alien who is looking for a native guide to show him around as he gathers evidence about humanity in preparation for the invasion. Out of curisoity as much as the lure of headlines, Sakurai agrees to help Amano – who needs to hook up with the other two scouts to combine their intel.
A unique aspect of these aliens is that they can only understand human concepts by extracting them from the minds of specimens, which leaves the donors bereft of ideas like freedom, work, possessions, family or love … some of the victims are horribly reduced by the process, but others are able to shrug off things which have been limiting their lives. The change in Narumi’s sister (Atsuko Maeda) when robbed of the concept of family is among the creepiest, most disturbing things Kurosawa has done in a long career specialising in this area – and his last film was even called Creepy. But the uptight neighbour who loses the idea of possessions is liberated and the overbearing, massage-inflicting boss robbed of the notion of work becomes an anarchic kid. The slightly overlong film intercuts the courses of the three aliens and their human guides, with a government/military response to the invasion in the background – occasioning bursts of loud, violent action as Akira uses martial arts or stolen guns (the shots are very loud) to fend off the Japanese SDF version of the Men in Black (it may be that Kurosawa is poking fun at the schoolgirl monster movie trend).
For the most part, the film deals with more intimate conflicts and alliances – the growing friendship between Sakurai and Amano, neither of whom seem to have the concept of friendship in their emotional vocabulary, pays off as the pair are fused in a last stand battle with killer drones that allows Hasegawa (from Shin Godzilla) to do one of the most impressive bits of alien-possessed mime since Vincent d’Onofrio in Men in Black. But the heart of the film is the strange marriage of Narumi and Shinji – with the husband progressing from infancy (and a childish nickname) to maturity by his acquisition of emotions and traits from others (which slightly recalls a vintage Twilight Zone ‘The Self-Improvement of Salvatore Ross’) and a climactic act of paradoxical self-sacrifice that leads to an affecting coda which is the nearest Kurosawa has come to being encouraging about the fate of humanity – and alien life – in his remarkable filmography. My favourite film of the festival.