Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for films about ghosts and other types of strange phenomena that are capable of stirring foreboding feelings through mininal means such as curtains rustling ominously in the breeze or red duct tape stuck incongruously on doors.
His new film, “Before We Vanish,” which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes film festival, is a first for the 62-year-old director in its sci-fi theme: Unseen aliens infect humans and use their hosts to recruit “guides” and gather gainen (concepts) about human thought and behavior to use in their upcoming invasion of Earth.
Also rare in the Kurosawa filmography is the light, comic tone of the opening scenes, with a newly infected alien host, played to spaced-out perfection by Ryuhei Matsuda, wandering a neighborhood like a dementia patient while his irascible wife (Masami Nagasawa) stews and rages.
But as the aliens rob their victims of core beliefs, the social fabric unravels, thread by individual thread. By the time they launch their invasion the world is falling into chaos and humanity’s survival is in doubt. Serious stuff indeed.
In its apocalyptic scenario, “Before We Vanish” resembles “Pulse,” Kurosawa’s 2001 cult classic about ghosts invading the world of the living via the internet. Speaking to The Japan Times, Kurosawa smiles at the comparison but insists that his new film is “quite different.”
“‘Pulse’ was a horror film from the beginning, but (in my new film) I pretty much eliminated the horror element and kept the scary scenes to a minimum,” he says. “The characters that appear in the first half treat what is going on as a kind of joke; they don’t think it’s actually happening. Also, for those watching it’s not very clear if anything is real. This joking tone gradually changes until what is happening represents a kind of reality.”
The 2005 Tomohiro Maekawa play on which the film is based has a similar light-to-dark progression, but the stage on which the play unfolds, Kurosawa notes, “is a symbolic space — everything that happens there is symbolic. You can’t really tell if it’s real or a lie. It’s an interesting play in that way.”
The director points out that what works on stage will not work on camera.
“If a character says the line ‘I’m an alien’ on stage it can sound kind of funny, while expressing a kind of truth,” he says. “But when that line is spoken in the middle of a town in a film, you don’t think it’s serious at all. I was pretty worried how people watching the film would take it.”
Kurosawa’s solution was to introduce a sinister official from the health ministry, played by Takashi Sasano, who ups the tension by launching a government attack on the aliens.
“From the moment Sasano appears, the film departs from the play and develops in a cinematic way,” Kurosawa says. The intention, he adds, is to make the audience feel “something out of the ordinary is really happening.”
When I mention that both “Pulse” and “Before We Vanish” signal approaching doom with shots of an eerie-looking airplane passing overhead, Kurosawa says, “That’s exactly right. And you’re the first one to point that out.”
“Of course it’s not in the play,” he adds, “but I definitely wanted to do it for the film adaptation. I like a shot of an airplane flying across the sky in a dangerous situation, hitting the ground and exploding. (In this film) it expresses the threat to the human race.”
However, the architects of that threat — the aliens themselves — make no appearance in the film.
“If you make the audience believe the actors that they’re watching are aliens, but then toward the ending show the actual aliens who are using the humans, it’s easy to understand,” he says. “But then the actors look like phonies. That throws a wet blanket on things. The audience starts to wonder what the point is of even having actors, and feel strongly that the whole film is a lie.”
The film’s story of an alien attack threatening Japan as a panicked government hunts alien “subversives” also has uncanny present-day parallels, though Kurosawa denies writing it as a reaction to recent events.
“I didn’t intend to express that sort of thing, though it’s true the sci-fi invasion genre always symbolizes what is happening in that era, so you’re not wrong if you can see that sort of thing.”
“The world is complex, but a lot of people want to make it simpler,” he continues. “It’s easy to understand that some country may attack you with missiles, but something scary might happen in a totally different form. An attack may come from within Japan. That’s scarier. It’s gotten so now that anything could happen and you wouldn’t think it strange.”
Would it scare him, I ask, if an alien could rob him of his “concept” of film?
“It might be a big blow, like having love taken away,” he says. “I’d be scared to have movies taken away from me, but I also might feel really relaxed and happy. I’d think ‘What have I been suffering for all this time?’ All my stress might go away.” He shrugs and smiles. “But I don’t know.”
“Before We Vanish” is now playing in cinemas nationwide.