“Sophisticated autonomous A.I may need to base its behaviour on fuzzy concepts such as well-being or rights. These concepts cannot be given an explicit formal definition, but obtaining desired behaviour still requires a way to instil the concepts in an A.I system.” That quote’s lifted from the scholarly research paper about Artificial Intelligence, Concept Learning for Safe Autonomous AI, by Kaj Sotala, at the Foundational Research Institute.
The latest film from influential Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Before We Vanish is ostensibly dealing with another kind of A.I who also find themselves facing the fundamental problem of understanding human concepts. In this case, the A.I would be Alien Invaders. Kurosawa’s a pioneer of the J-Horror genre with films such as Pulse (2002), Loft (2005), and Creepy (2016), though he’s relatively new to mainstream science fiction.
Ahead of a planned invasion that’ll result in the absorption of all humanity, a vanguard of alien scouts have arrived on Earth. Their mission is to better understand their prey by harvesting difficult, yet defining, concepts that cannot be conveyed by mere words. The scouts have been ‘beamed’ into seemingly random host bodies and can stroll among us using this perfect camouflage. Except they have no understanding of what’s socially acceptable and so their odd, often extreme behaviour would soon give them away. To avoid this, when they take concepts from people they meet, the ‘donors’ lose all understanding of that concept and begin to act equally off-kilter. If you’ve seen cult cyberpunk classic The Hidden (1987), directed by Jack Sholder and starring Kyle MacLachlan, you’ll be able to get a handle on Before We Vanish quicker than most.
On her way home from school, teenager Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu) buys a goldfish. This very first shot already raises questions and, in some ways, suggests explanations for some of what is to come. How did she choose the fish she wanted? The net seemed to dip at random. Why did she want the fish? It could be to fulfil a need to care for something. It could be to observe and learn about another living creature. In Japan, there may be more conceptual reasons such as aesthetics or tradition… Kurosawa has a meticulous approach and if something’s in his film, then it either has meaning or is necessary for the pace and mood of the composition as a whole.
Apart from the fish she carries, there’s nothing to suggest there’s anything unusual about Akira’s homecoming that day as she disappears inside an unremarkable suburban house. Then there are screams and sudden cries of terror! The front door flies open and an older woman, presumably her mother, tries to flee but is dragged back inside by something with superhuman strength. We get to see the aftermath. The woman lies eviscerated in a pool of blood in which the goldfish flops about helplessly. Akira looks on dispassionately; her school uniform soaked in her mother’s blood, which she absently licks from her fingers.
The horror of ‘normal’ everyday life being suddenly and inexplicably interrupted by violence and death has been a central motif in many of Kurosawa’s films. These opening scenes could well be an outtake from his earlier unsettling psychological thriller Cure (1997), in which ‘average’ people commit motiveless murders. Even the oddly vacant and remorseless perpetrators cannot explain their reasons. The two films really seem to go hand-in-hand…
Both feature couples going through marital strife. In Cure, the detective’s wife is having a mental breakdown and doesn’t always remember where, or who, she is. She often gets lost on long strolls with no destination in mind. In Before We Vanish, young graphic designer Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) is becoming angry and frustrated by her life, not least her crumbling relationship with husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda). Then, to add to the pressures of her demanding job and its short deadlines, she finds she’s got to care for Shinji when he suddenly becomes ‘ill’.
It seems he’s forgotten everything, about who he is, about their relationship, and has taken to going on long strolls with no destination in mind. His personality has completely changed, it all seems new to him and a childlike curiosity drives him to ask straightforward questions about everyday life. Although initially a burden, it seems this also presents a chance for them to start over and this brings in a deeper, more intimate narrative that’s rare in mainstream science fiction movies.
We first met a similar wondering ‘innocent’ in Cure when an amnesiac appears on a long stretch of beach and begins to interrogate a stranger about the basic things in life. He has the same easy gait and blank expression as the strolling invaders in Before We Vanish. He could easily have walked from one film to the other. He, too, used the mannerism of pointing at a potential victim’s forehead that we see repeated here. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that the original 2005 play it’s based on, Sampo Suru Shinryakusha / Strolling Invaders, by playwright and director Tomohiro Maekawa, had been inspired by Kurosawa’s earlier film!
Maekawa maintains the story grew from a need to discuss the concepts of national and personal identities using the metaphor of the alien—the stranger in a strange land. Originally, this had been a small group of Japanese friends visiting the US and being overwhelmed by the alien culture there. He was inspired to introduce the science fiction aliens by his favourite episode of the Japanese TV series Ultra Seven (1967-68), in which a single invader disguises itself as an average person and puts a substance into vending machine cigarettes that causes people to feel alienated and threatened by those around them. They are driven crazy by paranoia and begin attacking and killing each other.
Whatever its origins, Maekawa’s play and subsequent novelisation seem to fit perfectly with the recurring themes in Kurosawa’s work. So, Kurosawa set about writing a fairly faithful adaptation of the story, with the help of co-writer Sachiko Tanaka, whom he’d also worked with on Tokyo Sonata (2008), a terrifying family drama with no overt genre references, and Real (2013), which could be considered his first flirt with technological sci-fi. Although he’s thought of as a genre director, it’s often very difficult to pin down what genre he’s working in.
There seems to be a popular view among reviewers that Before We Vanish is a random genre mash-up with pretensions of a deep philosophical subtext. I can see where that opinion could be coming from, but I don’t think it’s a valid point of view for anyone who fully engages with the narrative. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to make a film that is simply of a single genre. So, most films with something new to show us have come about through the combination or collision of genres. True, even Kurosawa describes his film a mix of “love story and suspense and comedy with an emotional core” but I’m hard-pressed to think of a really good sci-fi offering that didn’t tick most of those boxes…
Others have criticised its slow pacing, but I think that has more to do with the preconceptions of those expecting the usual extravagant ultraviolent action, or extreme horror, associated with films involving machine gun toting schoolgirls from Japan. Though there is a bit of bloody horror and some very cool short and sharp action sequences, it also grants the viewer enough of the quiet-time needed to consider some quite deep themes. There’s also an odd ‘double ending’ that may have baffled some viewers. Not all the questions raised find satisfying answers, but it avoids predictable cliché and there is a degree of closure.
I found it to be an absorbing and refreshing take on what is one of the oldest stories in science fiction. Alien invasion has been mainstay of the genre since H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds was published in 1898, and here it’s fused with the exploration of what it means to be human that became a defining element of the genre in an even earlier book: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, first published in 1818. Of more modern examples, it certainly has resonance with Larry Cohen’s groundbreaking TV series The Invaders (1967-68) and US sitcom Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001). The idea of a central concept defining our humanity whilst offering a possible means to defeat an alien threat has also been explored rather well by Star Trek’s Borg arc.
What makes Before We Vanish stand out is Kurasawa’s distinctive and deceptively simple visual style that aligns more closely with arthouse cinema. Here he’s using a new digital camera system that enables more freedom of movement in confined environments. From what I can gather, the small cameras are lightweight and use the same technology as drone photography to stabilise the image and eliminate judder. This keeps the production budget lower by reducing the need for sets in many of the domestic scenes. The film relies on the inventive cinematography of Kurosawa’s recurring collaborator Akiko Ashizawa, and there’s almost no use of visual effects throughout, until one short scene near the end.
Kurosawa is not only a visual stylist and innovator but also an actors’ director. Here he elicits almost pitch-perfect performances from all involved, particularly the young cast—and it’s not easy to convey concepts that need to be expressed without falling back on conventional language!
Yuri Tsunematsu and Mahiro Takasugi, who play teens ‘possessed’ by aliens, obviously relish their roles and imbue them with enough likeable characteristics to balance their realistically irritating adolescent traits. Unlike the teens they inhabit, though, their alien personalities are far less self-conscious and more honest. You only need to compare their performances with their real personalities we get to see in the making-of bonus to appreciate their acting skills. Although only just touching 20 years of age, Tsunematsu started acting aged 10, so she brings a decade of mainly TV acting experience with her. Takasugi is also in his early 20s, his striking ‘doll-like’ looks making him appear even younger than his years. He’d also been acting since childhood and has recently been in great demand, having notched-up more than 40 appearances, mainly on Japanese TV, since 2017.
Hiroki Hasegawa plays a magazine reporter who becomes the human ‘guide’ for the two teenage aliens as they search for the third member of their scout group. He manages to restrain his emotions enough to let us see where his loyalties lie whilst he convinces the invaders he’s a willing accomplice. Admittedly, this becomes increasingly blurred as events change all those involved. As we also get to know him and the aliens better, we also find that our attitude and allegiances may start to falter.
The aliens don’t seem evil or aggressive. In fact, they’re refreshingly, and sometimes comically, straight-up. They have believable, appealing personalities, and it’s never made clear whether those traits are actually from the occupying consciousness or the original hosts. We find ourselves questioning the basic concepts that govern our lives. What are the true meanings of normal behaviour, possessions, work ethic, family, society, national identity and even something as basic as species? Then we come to the big ones, like love and death…
Masami Nagasawa really brings Narumi’s inner life to the fore and we watch her core values change as she also becomes the human guide for her estranged husband, Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda). There’s one scene that’s both funny and profound when he takes the concept of work from her overbearing bully of a boss (Ken Mitsuishi), causing him to regress into a mischievous, rebellious child-man. He joyously smashes up some precise architectural miniatures in a kind of Godzilla parody. Something that would have even broader satirical connotations in Japanese society.
Matsuda plays the male lead with a Zen-like stillness and economy of gesture. The language of the script is so simple and the character has yet to master the concepts of emotion or human relationships. So, he relies on timing and body language to convey his subtle feelings and changing intentions. It seems that Narumi prefers this version of her husband, the one that’s gentle and truly needs her as a guide and partner in life… and it’s their mercurial relationship that forms the central thread and gives the whole film its emotional depth. This romantic subplot is very well realised, remaining poetic without becoming obtrusive.
Before We Vanish is complemented with the TV miniseries Yochô: Sanpo suru Shinryakusha / Foreboding (2017), also written and directed by Kurosawa and adapted from the same source material. In line with the current trend for imaginative TV, it lacks the light touch of the film and is a much darker affair. It’s not merely a serial version of the film, though it sits well alongside it, but an extension of the story that could be happening elsewhere in the same timeframe.
Masahiro Higashide, Foreboding’s villainous doctor, makes a guest appearance in the film as a Pastor that Shinji quizzes on the meaning of love. Already a familiar face on Japanese TV, he previously worked with Kurosawa in Creepy. The veteran character actor, Takashi Sasano, had also appeared in Creepy and here plays a top government agent heading the team of ‘men in black’ in pursuit of the invaders… They’re not the only familiar cast from Kurosawa’s back-catalogue to cameo, and fans can enjoy playing ‘I know that face from somewhere!’
Before We Vanish premiered internationally at a series of film festivals where it was very well received, including the prestigious 70th Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for the ‘Un Certain Regard’ award that celebrates films with outstanding originality of vision and present a new perspective. That new perspective can be applied to many aspects of the human experience in the modern world.
Metaphorically, it’s looking at the global increase in nationalistic politics, migration, and immigration. It could also be examining our hopes and fears for the non-human intelligence that’ll soon be among us in the form of artificial intelligence, predicted to increase in sophistication so rapidly that they’ll soon be able to outthink us. Some say this will happen in the next few decades and our survival may depend upon the A.I understanding certain complex concepts like well-being or rights, perhaps even love…
The film’s subsequent international distribution has tended to be patchy and mainly through the arthouse circuit, so it’s great that Arrow Video is releasing a Blu-ray edition in the UK. My only gripe is there’s no audio commentary, though there’s some compensation in the form of a limited-edition collectors’ booklet and some bonus features. If you’re looking for a fresh take on traditional SF themes, a thoughtful story about alien invasion, then your search is over.
Blu-ray Special Features:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation.
- Original 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.
- Optional English subtitles.
- The Making Of Before We Vanish, a 53-minute featurette including on-set footage and interviews with cast and crew. Broken down into sections linked by an extensive interview with Kiyoshi Kurosawa. He praises his lead cast unreservedly and points out that their acting is not only on the screen but “in the room” with the viewer. He also shares some film-making know-how and comes across as very humble, giving credit where credit’s due and admitting to mistakes and pitfalls. He also talks a bit about the meanings behind the story and how he tried to get some of the subtler aspects across. The behind-the-scenes footage reveals a lot about the cast and crew who really seemed to have a blast making the film and their enthusiasm is palpable in the finished product.
- Inside The Story, a 9-minute talk through the inspiration and interpretation of the original source material and its transmedia adaptation.
- Inside The Characters, 9 minutes of cast and crew interviews where they pretty much reiterate what was said in the Making Of featurette.
- Looking Back, members of the cast reunite to discuss memories of the production. A panel-style presentation in which the principal cast discuss the film after seeing the completed version. There’s a striking contrast between their humble and honest manner and the ego-driven nonsense we would have gotten from many a similar Hollywood star line-up! They highlight the cultural differences in how the film was received in different territories and comment kindly on each other’s performances. It’s a very pleasant 22 minutes, spent in some charming company as they earnestly contemplate some of the film’s deeper themes. Rather sadly, they observe that we go to war over mere concepts.
- Red carpet interviews from the Cannes Film Festival premiere. They’re all very cute in their formal suits and best frocks and evidently excited to be reaching an audience outside Japan.
- Cast and crew Q&As from four screenings including the Japanese premiere. There’s four of these and they get a little repetitive—it’s nice to see Tomohiro Maekawa, the author of the original play, included at one of these and endorsing the film version of his work.
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tommy Pocket.
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell. Not available at the time of review.
director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
writers: Kiyoshi Kurosawa & Sachiko Tanaka.
starring: Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Mahiro Takasugi, Yuri Tsunematsu & Hiroki Hasegawa.