Most Western audiences are probably most familiar with Japanese horror icon Kiyoshi Kurosawa through the American remake of his 2001 film Pulse (Kairo) — which is truly unfortunate. Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) is one of the most prolific filmmakers working today, having directed damn near a movie a year — not counting his extensive TV work — since he began his career in 1975. While his latest, Before We Vanish, is probably unlikely to build a substantial audience base stateside, at least it’s getting shown in Asheville — a feat that, to my recollection, none of his other films have achieved.
The reason that Vanish is unlikely to draw heavily, beyond the usual stumbling block of being a subtitled arthouse release, is that it’s a particularly strange film. Kurosawa seems largely unconcerned with pacing and characterization, focusing instead on atmosphere, subtext and tonality. What the film lacks in terms of a dramatic throughline, it more than makes up for in off-kilter charm, eschewing the polished sterility of a standard Hollywood screenplay for something far more eccentric. Kurosawa is drawn to moments rather than being distracted by the momentous, though there are certainly some big ideas at play in Vanish.
From a narrative standpoint, the film follows three alien beings, a reconnaissance party scouting Earth in advance of an extraterrestrial invasion. These visitors possess the bodies of three earthlings in an effort to understand the culture that their race will soon wipe out and replace, but they seem somewhat confounded by their attempts to understand their prey. To remedy this, they recruit “guides,” including amoral journalist Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) and devoted housewife Narumi Kase (Masami Nagasawa) to help them navigate our world. It may sound like a straightforward pod-people story in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it goes to some very odd depths that neither Don Siegel nor Philip Kaufman ever plumbed.
If Siegel’s film was about the Red Scare of the McCarthy era and Kaufman’s focused on the grotesque sense of entitlement that would define the ensuing “Me Decade,” Kurosawa has turned his tale of surreptitious alien usurpation toward a similarly imminent threat — that of the growing emotional disconnect impelled by our culture of constant connectivity. The aliens investigating Earth steal complex conceptions such as “work” or “family” by touching their victims on the head, thereby removing the concept from the human’s mind while absorbing it into the alien consciousness. The results are often comical, such as a boss who suddenly forgets to take himself seriously in the office, or a bratty teen who becomes even more dismissive of her older sister’s benevolent concern than would normally be expected. To Kurosawa, these losses become a laughing matter, albeit a particularly dark one.
Kurosawa’s film suffers at times from its laconic pacing and bifurcated narrative structure, but it’s to his credit that he’s cast such compelling leads to play his protagonists in Hasegawa and Nagasawa. It’s also laudable that he addresses a very compelling and important topic without the sense of self-seriousness many other filmmakers would have adopted in trying to elevate the film to some loftier “high concept.” Vacillating between moments of black comedy, horror and sentimentality, Kurosawa seems to be struggling to understand these big ideas just as diligently as his alien invaders — and what could be more human than that? Not Rated. Japanese with English subtitles.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.