Japanese Films at the Cannes Film Festival 2017 Review Round-Up: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Before We Vanish”

It has been a while since I last did a review round-up of any festival but fellow cinephile and Twitter-user FelixAguirre regularly collects links to reviews and alerts them to me and with such a treasure-trove of opinions from the most recent Cannes Film Festival on offer, I’d be mad to turn them down. Following on from Blade of the Immortal and Radiance is…

Before We Vanish

Before We Vanish Film Image

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is my favourite filmmaker. I’ll resist copying and pasting my reviews (since I copied and pasted my preview of this film) and just say that both his horror titles and his dramas like Tokyo Sonata and License to Live are my absolute favourite films of all time. He has transcended his horror roots and a controversial start to his career to become a major figure in the Japanese film industry and now teaches at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and tours the international festival circuit with his works. He has been a regular guest at the most high-profile European film festivals in recent years and his latest, a spin on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has captured critic’s interest:

Before We Vanish (English Title) / Strolling Invader (Literal Title)   Before We Vanish Film Poster

散歩する侵略者 Sanpo suru Shinryakusha

Running Time: 129 mins.

Release Date: September 09th , 2017

Director:  Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Screenplay), Tomohiro Maekawa (Original Stageplay),

Starring: Ryuhei Matsuda, Masami Nagasawa, Mahiro Takasugi, Yuri Tsunematsu, Hiroki Hasegawa,

Website IMDB

In between teaching the next generation of filmmakers at Tokyo University of Fine Arts, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has regularly been making films himself and his latest is based on a stageplay by Tomohiro Maekawa which was first performed in 2005. Its story has the feel of something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and while the first poster revealed looked innocuous enough the second one (which isn’t all that good) showcased an explosion so expect violence. It stars Ryuhei Matsuda (Nightmare DetectiveThe Great PassageMy Little Sweet Pea), Masami Nagasawa (Our Little Sister) and Hiroki Hasegawa (priceless as the mad director in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?). It has been selected to be screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival and it looks decent from the teaser.

Synopsis: Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) and her husband Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda) are having problems of the marital sort. Things may be bad but are they bad enough to justify Shinji disappearing for seven days? Masami is left wondering, especially because after his disappearance and return he seems like a totally different person, a kinder and gentler man who likes to go for a walk every day. This just happens to coincide with strange events in town and the brutal murder of a family. Masami begins to piece things together but Shinji surprises her again by telling her that he came to Earth to invade.

Some film critics lament the passage of time and the mellowing of the once-great horror director who has moved on from intense and original psychological and supernatural films to overlong sci-fi tales and adaptations of novels:

Once upon a time, Kiyoshi Kurosawa made films like Cure and Pulse, which – depending on who you ask – were some of the best horror films of their time. But man, when a director lets himself go… Before We Vanish is an ambitious sci-fi drama with some good ideas, and someone who doesn’t really know how to handle them. It’s a mess, both tonally and structurally, with a few lingering remnants of promise that never blossom to fruition.Sam Gray – The Upcoming

Before We Vanish Film Poster 2

The film has garnered mixed reviews from critics, most of whom state that genre fans more familiar with Kurosawa’s horror works and those expecting a sci-fi action spectacle (as promised by that explosion in that lacklustre poster) will face disappointment because the film lives up to its Japanese title as the paces relaxes into a stroll thanks to Kurosawa’s restrained direction and audiences are taken for a wander through an alien invasion and multiple genres whilst characters philosophise about life and love.

Perpetually shifting gear between playful sci-fi pastiche, quirky rom-com and apocalyptic thriller, Before We Vanish might have worked better as a single dedicated genre, but it becomes a little scrambled trying to cover several at once. Kurosawa’s lackadaisical direction does not help, deflating any suspense and stretching audience patience with his snoozy pacing and baggy running time.Stephen Dalton – The Hollywood Reporter

The running time becomes an issue when there is no dramatic propulsion vanishes after its exciting and scary opening it seems like there is little of interest happening…

The sparks of dark humour within this awkwardly paced and overlong drama are not enough to sustain audience interest until the film’s laboured conclusion. Wendy Ide – Screen Daily

Before We Vanish Film Image 2

But stick with it. Despite the harsh criticism of some, others say the film is redeemed by its conclusion:

Playing frequently like an absurdist political satire with only flashes of violence, this low-tension, drawn-out work won’t gratify the chills or adrenaline rushes fanboys crave, but the ending strikes a romantic chord so pure that all but the most jaded cynics will be moved.Maggie Lee – Variety

As far as I can tell, this film, along with all of Kurosawa’s most recent output reveal a director who has firmly become a grand old man of the Japanese film industry and one might argue that, like the industry, his fire is vanishing with each film he releases amidst money-spinning adaptations. You can’t stay angry when you are no longer an outsider like he was around the time of Charisma and he has matured but he feels like another example of the many Japanese filmmakers who aren’t tackling different and difficult subjects whether it is politics, corruption, misogyny and whatever else needs to be addressed in society and that is disappointing. Still, maybe you’d trade in controversy for acclaim if you get invited to Cannes and lauded in Japan… 

Before We Vanish Photocall

Meanwhile, in Korea where filmmakers DO discuss and dissect difficult subjects in films and still get invited to festivals their films are still generating interest – I will have to review some soon…

14 thoughts on “Japanese Films at the Cannes Film Festival 2017 Review Round-Up: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Before We Vanish”

  1. Hayley Scanlon

    This is quite an interesting point – Korean films, at least the ones making it through to festivals, are mostly tackling “difficult” subjects through genre, so I guess they’re being shuffled into a different category and often slotted into the “fun” strands outside of competition and perhaps taken less “seriously” by critics. Reviews for those films tend to focus on the more “extreme” aspects rather than the themes which are only seen as supporting the “extreme” nature of the film rather than commenting on modern Korean society. At least, I can’t think of (m)any “arthouse” leaning films dealing with usual or taboo subjects making it through to major European festivals (even the Handmaiden was mostly reviewed in terms of its salacious/pulp content rather than as a “serious” arthouse film).

    Okja is kind of interesting in that regard because its themes (as far as I understand them without having seen it) of compassion and environmentalism are also common to much of Japanese cinema (just more so with family films and animation). Yet many of the reviews for Okja (aside from the ones which are just about Netflix) are also reducing it to “crazy Korean/US movie is crazy.”

    I think it’s also worth noting that many of the Korean directors whose films are getting traction outside of Asia are younger which means they’re more likely to engage with current social problems in their work. The other problem with Japanese cinema is that there’s a missing generation – where are the directors waiting to take over from Koreeda, Kawase, and Kurosawa?

    I feel like I always bring everything back to the bubble, but the other factor is that Japan has predominantly been stuck in a period of intense economic flux which has overshadowed other social problems whereas Korea’s recent history as been one of intense political and social change which has been impossible to ignore in terms of cinema. Japanese films have increasingly focused on the past as a way of insisting everything’s fine, whereas Korean films have been quietly insisting everything is not fine for quite some time.

    Of course this is leaving aside the way Japanese films are financed and the comparative difficulty of raising money for and distributing “controversial” films which are unlikely to make their money back at the box office, as well as potentially causing harm to the businesses associated with them (another awkward factor about the Japanese entertainment industry).

    Then again, Ogigami’s Close-Knit was well received in Berlin, I don’t know how well it did in Japan but perhaps there is a case for reverse importation following festival success allowing similar films greater possibilities.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I’m going to generalise and obfuscate things with this comment…

      I agree with your points, that there is a greater emphasis on profits thanks to the bursting of the bubble and the decline of the studio system since the 70s and this has led to a shrinking of subject matter and the withdrawal of backing from filmmakers who have a new approach and material which is different from what has been tried and tested. Due to this lack of support there is a space and we are left with an older generation clinging to traditional techniques and stories and younger filmmakers left with making indies until they graduate to trusted status and move on to more dramas made with a bigger budget. That, and there’s a general reluctance amongst people to talk too much about politics outside of friends and family.

      As a result, it feels like Japanese filmmakers are increasingly drawing from the same well of stories and ideas and that there is nothing surprising. Again, it’s down to financiers not taking risks in terms of material and style.

      I don’t expect every filmmaker to be Ken Loach but I would appreciate people addressing urgent issues through means other than documentary as well as bringing back unique stories and styles. Genre is a great way to sneak messages through but it seems like Korea has more political films and filmmakers with decent financial backing who are willing to try different stories through a variety of different genres with a verve and spirit and great execution.

      Amidst the craziness of some mainstream and mid-budget Korean action or revenge drama is a direct attempt to get the audience to think about the tough questions facing society and, the execution tends to be much sharper and the message is clearer whereas too many Japanese films fall into melodrama, sidestep, or muddle issues or just say nothing. Take, for example, Good Morning Show. It was a mess. I mean, I felt it wasn’t funny in its middle-of-the-road approach and its attempts at a social message were ham-fisted and deliberately uncontroversial and it dragged on.

      I don’t expect every writer and director to place a political message in every film and scare off the audience but what I do want is to see more diversity in approach and topic, whether it’s the psychological character-studies that Kurosawa put out when he was clawing his way back in from the cold, or the comedies of Juzo Itami which featured some social commentary.

      This is part of the reason why female filmmakers are so precious. We get a new source of talent to see and a new set of stories and styles and that can help prevent the industry from becoming moribund and also place more interesting politics on the big screen. Now, we just need to support female filmmakers and others with unique visions…

  2. Tokyo Sonata I did not like. It reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” at points. Drama or farce? What was supposed to be drama I took as farce, and vice versa.

      1. I really need to watch it again. I haven’t seen it since my review years ago but I remember so many scenes clearly – walking through Tokyo and seeing a private piano teacher’s sign on her gate prompted a strong memory – and the ending still makes me emotional! I need to watch it again but I have so many new films to watch…

      2. I’m a happy drunk, haha. Everything and everyone is fun!

        In all seriousness, I am a social drinker more than anything but the moment I feel tipsy I nurse a drink or switch to juice. Since returning from Japan, I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol despite bringing a bottle of shochu back.

  3. The problem with “Message” films is that film audiences in general don’t watch films to be preached at or lectured, they just want escapist entertainment, which is fine. This is why heavily political or social commentary films are the province of indie or arthouse cinema because that is where the more discerning film fan can be found.

    The downside though is that only a few people get to hear the message which negates the point of going to all that trouble of trying to say something if there is no-one to hear it. International festivals may be a great way of getting wider attention but for many, they are a synonym for shall we say “exclusive” tastes from the mainstream (hell, even I have hard time with some of the films they award or rave over) so really, they are preaching to the choir.

    So, in may ways, the Koreans are being smart by disguising their message films as big, star laden action thriller blockbusters so they can sneak in their social commentary to an unsuspecting captive audience and secure possible international release to boot. In Japan messages only seems able to get through to the mainstream audiences via Miyazaki’s anime and in a diluted form via guys like Yoji Yamada.

    Indie directors in Japan, Korea and China are not afraid to address issues head on as we have seen but the caveat is in their indie status because that is where creativity is free to flow. So as film fans we have to ask ourselves – do we want to keep on being part of an exclusive club or do we want homogenised versions of these films that will appeal to the masses for the sake of the financial bottom line?

    But without money films can’t be made and if you want the money you have to play by the rules of the investor so film makers have to ask themselves what is more important – success or artistic integrity? After all, the big studios aren’t going to change their tact any time soon, yet conversely the way to getting indie films noticed is to hook people in with the mainstream stuff first – that’s how we all got here, right? 😉

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I think we all agree that financiers are the problem and also the audience. We cannot lead audiences who prefer mainstream movies directly to open political messages but there has to be something other than entertainment or harmless romances/character studies offered and there has to be some sense of duty on the part of the audience to watch challenging films but, alas, it doesn’t exist.

      The best films usually have some philosophy, style, and politics, no matter how slight, that are in the mix and make the audience think to different degrees but there’s nothing but films about the elderly and middle class life, gangsters and horror films, and little else as genres shrink and people (producers and audiences) go for cliches and marketing tools and switch their brains off.

      Not everyone can be like our group of Twitter friends who want to analyse and be challenged, I guess, haha.

  4. Like I say, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be entertained first and foremost, but for me I do like to FEEL I have been entertained or moved, message film or not. If you can’t feel *something* by the end of a film – positive or negative – then it’s failed in my opinion.

    Mindless entertainment can be fun and it is okay to switch your brain off every once in a while, but the line between vapid and soulless and mindless entertainment is a thin one that many people cross all too easily. It is finding that balance that is the key both for the producers, the studios and the audience.

    My beef about “heavy” films and mainstream audience reactions to them is the fact that they come with a stigma of being either too intellectual or pretentious that is proving hard to shift. Even something as socially relevant as “I, Daniel Blake” didn’t get a full theatrical release in the UK despite having a ready made audience who could relate to it. This is down to both the distributors and the cinemas for not ensuring this important film was made available to wider audiences.

    This stigma also applies to foreign language films. Again, people don’t have to like them but they are dismissed purely because they are not in English and have subtitles, or don’t have stars they recognise it’s an automatic no go area for them – no trying to watch them or giving them a go out of curiosity, just plain bigoted knee jerk rejection.

    How do we get past that? The 64 million dollar question… :-/

    1. Yeah, that’s a particular irritation I have, that audiences flee/are denied something that demands them to think about things. What’s life about if it isn’t to learn and improve and understand the World/different people and cultures/different things like science? That requires brain power but you become a better person and might be able to make the world a better place.

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