Following Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s output can be like riding a roller coaster. He’s one of Japan’s best filmmakers working today and for a loyalist like myself it can be tough to navigate the peaks and valleys of his more recent work. But it’s difficult to not have interest in whatever comes next from the director of Cure and Kairo. Most directors would be happy to make one masterpiece in their lifetime; Kurosawa has two, and plenty of strong titles peppered throughout the rest of his filmography. But for every high point -- like his family drama Tokyo Sonata or aptly titled thriller Creepy -- there’s a slog like Journey to the Shore or a haphazard mess like Daguerrotype.
Thankfully, Before We Vanish falls more on the positive side, with Kurosawa taking a stab at an alien invasion movie. Three extra-terrestrials arrive on Earth and inhabit the bodies of three people in order to better understand the human race before launching an invasion. Their desire is to understand “conceptions” of human ideas like family, work, freedom, and self, but their process of doing so involves extracting these concepts from humans who, in turn, lose all comprehension of whatever the aliens take from them.
Kurosawa and cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa keep the camera moving at a frequent rate, with plenty of pans and tracking shots that give the film a classical feeling (the same goes for Yusuke Hayashi’s score, which uses the likes of Ennio Morricone as an influence). Despite its overlong runtime, there’s an energy to the presentation that keeps things moving along, and Kurosawa’s trademark of making the fantastical look banal unsurprisingly makes for a nice fit with this particular genre. There’s a sort of relief that comes from watching material like this being done with such an assured hand.
But no matter how confident Kurosawa’s direction may be, his screenplay (based on Tomohiro Maekawa’s play) doesn’t commit hard enough to one thing to make a strong impact. While the film offers a handful of action sequences and thrills, it’s too conceptual and spread out to work as a more direct genre film. And its main theme involving what it means to be human (along with what humans become when certain ideas are taken away from them) is shallow, with a resolution that relies on an unearned sentimentality. Kurosawa makes his ideas understood, he just never makes them felt.
Still, Before We Vanish’s writing issues don’t tank the film by any means. Like some of Kurosawa’s other titles, frustration comes from seeing someone capable of making a great film not entirely rising to the occasion. Genre has always been his strong suit and Before We Vanish is entertaining and accomplished enough to show why Kurosawa remains one of Japan’s foremost auteurs working today. The roller coaster may not be a pleasant ride, but for the time being, there’s no reason to want to get off just yet.