Before We Vanish begins like many Kiyoshi Kurosawa films, filled with mystery and ambiguity. The peace and quiet of a small residential street are pierced by the screams of a woman bursting out of her door and being immediately dragged back inside by an unseen assailant or supernatural force. A young girl stands in the living room, drenched in blood and surrounded by corpses. She carefully studies her bloodied hands, not in shock, but with a detached curiosity. She wanders into the street, and a truck swerves to avoid her, crashing into another car and causing a pileup. She continues down the road, without glancing behind her. It’s an intriguing scene until it’s suddenly a stupid one, the car crash pushing the tone way over the top and deflating the whole experience with poorly-rendered special effects. In this way, it’s the perfect opening scene. It establishes the trajectory of the ensuing two hours, a promising setup that builds into a crushing disappointment.
After the title card, we are introduced to Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) as she rushes to the hospital to retrieve her husband, Shinji (Ryûhei Matsuda), who is suffering from shock and has no memory of how he got there. Shinji stumbles around for a while like Dougie in the third season of Twin Peaks, and Kurosawa employs his strong command of mis-en-scène to great comedic effect, getting ridiculous mileage out of a simple running gag like Shinji falling over because he can’t remember how to walk. Kurosawa follows up these funny opening sequences with an alluring twist, the introduction of a young kid who tells a journalist, Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), that he is an alien occupying a human body, on a recon mission, looking for the other two members of his team. Sakurai decides to help the kid out and see where the story goes.
The link between these two plot threads is clear: Shinji is one of the aliens on the recon team, and eventually all of these characters will meet. Alas, the two threads careen off in such wildly different directions that they functionally become their own distinct movies and fail to reconcile in a compelling manner. Shinji and Narumi occupy the A plot, which is funny and endearing and offers a more meditative examination of the film’s themes. The aliens learn about humans by literally stealing concepts from their minds, altering the behavior of their victims, allowing the film to explore the relationship between human values, social constructions, and personal identity (e.g. Shinji steals the concept of “family” from Narumi’s sister, and her relationships radically change). The B plot involves Sakurai and the other two body-snatching characters and is essentially a B-movie, loaded with dumb action and bad special effects. This thread careens through an inane scavenger hunt for components necessary to transmit an alien radio signal, with obstacles taking the predictable genre shapes of vast government cover-ups and shadowy conspiratorial agents.
When the two plot threads finally meet for the film’s conclusion, the dumb action and bad special effects of the B plot fold over into the A plot, and the whole film suffers. The film’s ambitions leave the reality of its production budget far behind, but worse, the film surrenders so much screen time to the B plot that the A plot struggles to develop its philosophical curiosity into anything substantial. Ultimately, Before We Vanish fails to stick the landing. The A plot amounts to little more than eye-rolling platitudes about love. (Can we live without the concept of love? I won’t spoil the ending.) The B plot literally just blows up.
Before We Vanish is the latest in a now decade-long line of frustrating disappointments from Kiyoshi Kurosawa… and might even be the worst of them. It has all the ponderous plotting of Journey to the Shore, without developing any compelling ideas. It has all the genre-bending antics of a film like Real, but with a noticeable lack of plesiosaurs. It’s not even as focused or atmospheric as Daguerreotype, and I wouldn’t go to bat for that one, either. I know Kurosawa is better than this, and I hope I’m not waiting another decade for him to knock one out of the park.