“Another outstanding achievement; (…) a subdued and at times funny exploration of humanity [that] subtly shifts into a moving meditation of that irrational little thing called love.”
Just before Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda) is released from the hospital, Narumi Kase (Masami Nagasawa) expresses her concern about Shinchan’s functioning to the doctor. He replies, to put her mind at ease, that with time and her care, he’ll become his old self in no time. In Narumi’s car, Shinji’s question to guide him startles Narumi.
Around the same time that Shinji’s personality changed, a family is found murdered – the sole survivor being Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu) – and strange things begin to happen all over town. Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) a reporter from weekly world, is send to cover the gruesome murders. At the murder scene, he meets Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), who asks him to be his guide and to seek Akira together.
It is immediately apparent that the aliens, that have come to posses certain human beings, have no ‘humanity’ in a strict sense and are more like logical machines. In this respect, the reconnaissance mission to prepare for a mass invasion, i.e. the main narrative thread, is but a mere means for Kurosawa to thoughtfully explore the concept of humanity itself and to uncover what makes us a subject to begin with. It thus shouldn’t come as a surprise that this exploration, at the same time when the reconnaissance mission leads to military mobilization and interventions – and thus short action scenes, gently turns into a narrative with romantic accents.
In Kurosawa’s exploration of the concept of humanity, certain fundamental (psychoanalytical) aspects are touched upon and framed with a persisting sense of alienation – some situations even become, by their slight absurdness, rather funny. In this way, the narrative uncovers the initial importance to gain mastery over one’s body, the necessity of an other as a specular image in this process, and the need of an Other, as guide, to find one’s orientation in society conditioned by language (Narra-note-1).
But the most fundamental truth that Before We Vanish uncovers about humanity and the human subject as such, is the importance of the signifier (symbolic) and its enmeshment with the image (imaginary) as such (e.g. self/ego and others, …) and the importance of the signifier in creating societal structures (e.g. family, ownership, work…) that guide subjectivity by becoming ‘subjectified’ (Psycho-note 1). By taking signifiers and their attached representations from human subjects with a simple touch of the finger, the aliens become more subject, while, in the same way, alienating their “humanizers” from their subjectivity (narra-note 2). And then Shinji stumbles on the signifier love, a signifier like no other, as it denotes the most subjective, but also the most irrational aspect of human subjectivity (Narra-note 3).
Kurosawa’s cinematography is sublime in its simplicity. His deliberate approach to framing – blending slow moving shots and temporally long fixed shots, often entwined with disquieting sound and music and ever supported by atmospheric ambient noise – easily underlines when the strange comes to disturb the banality of daily human life (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2). And his use, at certain times, of more lighthearted music is equally fruitful in evoking the strange and the (often quite funny) alienating strangeness of certain situations.
Kurosawa’s dependence on the temporal long shot, puts the emphasis on the interactions, speech as well as conduct, between ‘alien’ and human subject. In this respect, it is important to note that the acting performances of the main cast are topnotch. Especially Masami Nagasawa’s performance as Narumi, who evolves from an mildly annoyed but caring to a genuinely loving wife, is marvelous (Acting-note 1). Furthermore, the coming-into-being (as human subject) of Shinji is touchingly portrayed by Ryuhei Matsuda.
While Before we Vanish doesn’t resemble Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s usual horror and thriller narratives, he does deliver another outstanding achievement with this narrative. With his composed cinematography and the powerful sound-design, Kurosawa is able to turn his sci-fi invasion narrative into a subdued, at times funny and relevant exploration of humanity and what makes a human a human subject as such. And while there is a certain familiar fatalistic undertone to be noted in the narrative, Before We Vanish subtly shifts into a moving meditation of that irrational little thing called love.
Narra-note 1: The importance of language in one’s (symbolic) orientation in Japanese society is fittingly revealed by the initial problematic use of Japanese respect language by the aliens. In speaking to his wife, Shinji first expresses himself with keigo (respect language), implying emotional distance between them. Amano, in this respect, first fails to address Sakurai with the respect he deserve as elder.
Narra-note 2: It is rather funny to see that the act of stealing signifiers and representations can also have a positive and liberating effect on a given subject. While signifiers and representations within a given society are fundamental in moulding our subjectivity, the narrative also reveals that these signifiers have the implicit power to limit and hinder a subject in following his desire.
Narra-note 3: One could argue that the effect the taking of the signifier of love has, is caused by the fact that, with respect to love, to entire being of the human subject is involved. If one can look past the narrative’s lumping together of love, desire and drive, the narrative underlines the involvement of the real body in the act of feeling love.
Acting-note 1: With this movie, Masami Nagasawa proves that she is able take on more serious roles.
Cine-note 1: The use of ambient noise is instrumental in underlining silence, i.e. lack of speech, and the noises of daily life, to be understood as the noises human actions produce.
Cine-note 2: In some instances, faster moving shots are used as well.
Psycho-note 1: With the term subjectified, we mean the process of signifiers becoming subjectively invested. While there is an external societal structure, we only become part of it our subjective investment in that society and the signifiers it produces. In this respect, the narrative implies that the taking of conceptions effects societal structures as well as the subjectivity that is present in the real body.