Late into the Japanese science-fiction pastiche “Before We Vanish,” an extraterrestrial visitor wanders into a Tokyo church where several children are singing “Jesus Loves Me.” There’s nothing especially scary about the scene as it plays out: The creature has taken possession of an earthly body and, for the most part, looks and sounds like an ordinary human male. But there is something unmistakably chilling about this sudden juxtaposition of the sweet, the sacred and the sinister.
What will become of these innocent kids when the inevitable alien invasion occurs? Will Jesus still love them even if they are no longer, strictly speaking, themselves? The prolific writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa doesn’t supply an answer to that last question, Western religion not being an especially significant cornerstone of his work. Which is not to suggest that his movies, this one included, are lacking in spiritual dimensions — quite the contrary.
For most of its unhurried, perversely suspense-free 130 minutes, “Before We Vanish” plays like a witty, low-key throwback, a goofily deadpan tribute to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Starman” and other endlessly recyclable touchstones of science-fiction cinema. But beneath its cheeky, scattershot surface is a surprisingly earnest core, as well as a sincere inquiry into what exactly humanity stands to lose in the face of its looming extinction.
That gloomy fate is announced at the outset, not long after the movie dispenses with its most unnerving image: an ugly crime scene presided over by a teenage girl in a blood-spattered school uniform. She may look like a Quentin Tarantino fantasy, but Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), or what used to be Akira, is actually something much more dangerous. Her body has unwittingly become host to an alien who has come to Earth to prepare the way for an eventual takeover.
Together with her alien cohort Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), Akira commandeers a local journalist named Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) to serve as their “guide,” who will acquaint them with the human populace they are about to wipe out. The three of them travel across Tokyo, pausing for the occasional bloodbath triggered by Akira’s violent paranoia, and so that they can extract important qualities — feelings, values, instincts, bits of knowledge — from the humans they meet. (“I took his conception of work,” one of them notes, shortly after turning an overbearing businessman into the office prankster.)
Unbeknownst to Akira and Amano, there is a third alien in their midst, inhabiting the body of a man named Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda). Shinji’s abrupt change in personality is not lost on his estranged wife, Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), especially since he gives her a pretty direct explanation for it. (“To tell the truth, I’m an alien,” he says.) In one of the movie’s more amusing developments — shades of Dougie Jones in “Twin Peaks: The Return” — Shinji’s possession has a surprisingly restorative effect on their marriage. There are casually profound implications to that joke: Might we all do a better job of loving one another, perhaps, without all the emotional calluses, the rigid expectations, that accumulate over time?
Until it climaxes with a series of none-too-persuasive CG explosions, all in service of a bizarre homage to “North by Northwest,” “Before We Vanish” is a clever, endearing example of speculative fiction executed at a purely conceptual level. That we never see the aliens in their presumably grotesque original form may underscore the movie’s roots in a stage play by Tomohiro Maekawa (which Kurosawa adapted with his co-writer, Sachiko Tanaka). But it also serves the material’s philosophical bent, its insistence that we reconsider the boundaries between what is and isn’t human.
For all the shootouts and set pieces that punctuate the story’s leisurely buildup, Kurosawa’s most effective means of opening up the material is through the simple addition of the camera. (The cinematography is by Akiko Ashizawa.) The director is fond of framing his actors in long shots, maintaining a visual distance that never instructs us where to place our identification. The reasons for that decision are at once egalitarian and practical: What’s the point of selective empathy in a movie where nearly everyone we see will soon be dead anyway?
Whether that grim fate will ultimately come to pass — and if so, when and how — is one of the few mysteries that the movie leaves suspended until its gently haunting final moments. If “Before We Vanish” isn’t nearly as focused or accomplished as Kurosawa’s horror masterpiece “Cure” (2001), or as shattering as his magnum opus “Tokyo Sonata” (2008), it’s nonetheless a reminder that he has few equals when it comes to spinning even the flimsiest B-movie template into a cinema of ideas. Coming from one of the most prolific and erratic genre masters working today, it’s a more-than-promising sign of intelligent life.
‘Before We Vanish’
(In Japanese with English subtitles)
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: Regal L.A. Live Stadium 14, downtown