What is love?
That query proves even more complicated than usual in Before We Vanish, Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's engaging if messy, and overstuffed, 20th feature. It's a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers that meanders from action to satire to romantic affirmation.
The man who poses the question is Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda) — or, rather, the alien who just seized control of Shinji's form. This new but physically unchanged man is suddenly clinical, inquisitive, and physically wobbly, so his bewildered wife takes him to a doctor. Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) doesn't especially want her old husband back. Their marriage has rotted, and as Shinji learns more about being human, Narumi begins to like the new model more than the previous one.
Shinji is one of three advance scouts for the extraterrestrials' conquest of mankind, a "run-of-the-mill species." Introduced first is Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), the most violent of the contingent. After an initial miscalculation, Akira grabs the body of schoolgirl and commits a brutal crime. This opening sequence, which invokes Kurosawa's past as a horror-flick director, is a gory bit of misdirection.
The last of the intergalactic patrol to arrive on screen is the most functional as a human. Amano (Mahiro Takasugi) recruits as his "guide" Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), a stereotypically cynical reporter who was just assigned to find Akira. That suits Amano, who's supposed to meet up with the other two scouts but doesn't know where they are. (Why don't the aliens have a better communication system? That's one of many practical questions the movie ignores.)
For no apparent reason, the visitors are researching people's basic "conceptions": work, self, family, ownership, and, of course, love. The wrinkle is that, when an alien "collects" this information from someone, it vanishes from that person's understanding. In the context of Japanese culture, which is built around bedrock conceptions of work and family, that act proves both devastating — and quite funny.
Before We Vanish was adapted from Tomohiro Maekawa's play, in which the aliens' mind-wiping must have played a central role. Scripted by Sachiko Tanaka and the director, the film includes scenes that would be difficult to present on stage: machine-gun shoot-outs, a fighter-plane assault, and other computer-generated business. These are not the highlights of a movie that works best when it uses the curious aliens to quietly question human values.
Although a tighter cut of the 130-minute Before We Vanish would likely be an improvement, it might lose this version's intriguing asides. The original Japanese title means something like The Invaders Take a Walk, which captures the film's peripatetic rhythm and structure. It also makes explicit that Japan is an invaded country, a theme glancingly addressed by references to the U.S. military presence.
It's essential, the director has said, that the story be set in a place with a nearby American military base. Early in the movie, the camera observes a bilingual protest sign whose English text demands, "U.S. Army Go Out!" Other Western influences are represented by Yusuke Hayashi's Euro-classical-style score and the Christian church where Narumi takes Shinji in search of the meaning of love.
What the priest offers, naturally, is the famous definition from Paul's epistle to the Corinthians: "Love is patient, love is kind," and so on. The passage is later illustrated, after the societal collapse that's nearly required in Kurosawa's movies, by the way one survivor faithfully tends to another.
That is love. It's also family.