Aliens invade — well, three of them do — Japan, and they’re here for our mental “concepts” in “Before We Vanish,” a peculiarly Japanese take on Pod People, what makes us human and the complacency that comes with that knowledge.
The aliens brag that it’ll take them three minutes, then maybe “three days…we underestimated you” to take over. It takes co-writer/director Kiyoshi Kurasawa two hours and nine minutes to get that point across.
Much of that run time is a spent on a story that’s a frustrating and puzzlingly vacuous experience. I know it gave my yen for all films Japanese a severe test. It’s a sardonic satire that lacks the wit, style or pacing to let it come off.
“Vanish” begins with a bloodbath, a schoolgirl, Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), a favorite and slightly pervy meme of Japanese cinema, comes home and butchers a houseful of relatives. Akira had no motive, just a lurching, zombie-ish walk to tip us that she’s not quite right.
Across town, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa of “Our Little Sister”) confronts her cheating and possibly weirded out husband Shinji (Ryûhei Matsuda of “The Raid 2”) before dragging him to the doctor. He can’t remember much of anything.
“We’re married? What does that mean?” he asks (in Japanese, with English subtitles).
Her increasingly exasperated explanations of every “concept” he questions her about only earns a cryptic “Interesting” from him in reply.
A hustling TV reporter (Hiroki Hasegawa, of a recent “Godzilla” movie or two) notices the Japanese defense forces, the U.S. military and even the Ministry of Health are on the move. A contagion? A kid (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) tips him off. “We’re invading.”
Over the course of two hours, these three storylines follow the three aliens as they try to meet and “E.T. phone home!” their people. Along the way, they reveal their alienness by not quite fitting in, not showing proper respect or Japanese manners in conversation.
And in Akira’s case, it’s the mayhem she brings with her that gives her away.
But that mayhem is a blessed relief in a movie that grapples with the idea of “work” and “family” and “love” (explained, sort of, in a Christian church) and what would happen to us if an alien demanded that we visualize it, then says “I’ll take that” with a touch of his finger.
Odder still are the humans who more or less consent to being each alien’s “guide.” They explain, and are puzzled at their own explanations, the “traps” they live their lives in.
As in “work” means compromising your beliefs, ethics (plagiarism) and integrity (sexual harassment must be endured) to get money, “family” is out of date, etc.
Having the trap of one’s belief system sprung doesn’t quite explain the complacency of the reporter helping end the human race (the aliens are not immortal, and he’s got access to guns and a truck that could run them over at several points), the wife suddenly loyal to the cheating, stumbling husband who now seems reborn as a fish-out-of-water philosopher.
There’s a little “Starman” here — too little — and a bit of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” There’s little style to the filmmaking (filler “traveling” scenes) and zero urgency to this emergency.
You don’t have to read his bio to know that this Kurosawa (“Pulse”) isn’t related to the more famous one, even if Tarantino’s addled production company (Wild Bunch) did drag this oddity into American theaters.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence
Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Masami Nagasawa, Mahiro Taksugi, Yuri Tsunematsu
Running time: 2:09