Last year, Kiyoshi Kurosawa made one of his most purely fun pictures, Before We Vanish, adapting a play by Tomohiro Maekawa into a genuinely zany science fiction film, a chance at a bigger budget the Japanese filmmaker relished through a clever homage to 1980s blockbusters, an elastic tone of silly graveness, and vibrant dashes of special effects. Kurosawa has unexpectedly returned to this same material (another play by Maekawa, who co-wrote the script) with a new film set in the same world: Foreboding, a 5-part miniseries shown on Japanese TV last September and trimmed by an hour into a straightforward but terrific and phantasmal thriller that premiered at the Berlinale. The premise is the same across the films: in advance of an invasion, aliens are quietly inhabiting the bodies of normal people, finding human guides to escort them around, and harvest “concepts” (work, love, death) from the minds of those around them in order to better understand their enemy. This harvesting is imagined in a masterstroke of simplicity: the aliens question a victim until they unexpectedly picture the desired concept, a finger is held out, light glimmers from somewhere in the frame, the finger taps the person's forehead, a tear falls forth and they fall to the ground, stunned into a stupor and forever emptied of the idea from their being.
Avoiding the scale (including gunplay and CGI) and goofiness of its predecessor, Foreboding picks up this idea at a more constrained and intimate level, when Etsuko (Kaho) comes home to find her husband, Tatsuo (Shota Sometani), standing eerily peeking out their balcony. In how he fails to answer her calls so that we and she think Etsuko’s alone in the house, in where he’s eventually found, awkwardly cramped in the corner of the image, his blank back to the screen, in the bright and spacious apartment feeling, somehow, not open but rather emptied out—in such moments Kurosawa showcases how he’s the untoppable master of the uncanny. And the uncanny starts popping up all around Etsuko: Her boss is acting strangely vacant; a coworker stops recognizing her father and thinks there’s a ghost living in her house; and while waiting for Tatsuo at the hospital Etsuko seems to suffer some kind of fit, becoming entranced by a mirror inside which the world trembles and booms—a moment preceding the introduction of her husband’s colleague, the abnormally gangly Dr. Makabe (Masahiro Higashide), who understandably gives her the creeps.
For Foreboding’s first act Etsuko is our surrogate, our Melanie Daniels from Hitchcock’s The Birds, poking around her world as she finds the everyday increasingly strange. Ingeniously shooting CinemaScope in his fourth film in the format, Kurosawa here is at the consummate height of his craft. The film is color-designed beautifully, beginning in the serene aqua-teal home of the couple, which puts their marriage—one that’s supremely hard to read, since Tetsuo’s distracted, rude air makes his bond to the curious and compassionate Etsuko seem tenuous—at the crux of the mystery. Stabs of red in the production design disrupt this harmony, and, as more people get wise to the alien presence, the mise en scène starts to descend towards the director’s signature style of the brown-gray decay and dilapidation of a corroding world. As is consistent through Kurosawa’s work, we never get to see what the normal world looks like; his films always seem to start after something strange has thrown reality askew. Oddly vacated public spaces, an ethereal and dystopian preponderance of torn, hanged and floating curtains, stiff and estranged communication between intimates, unexplainable flourishes of light (we learn to fear the light), and a camera that sees in empty spaces the possible existence of something unexplainable: Foreboding begins in a world already ghostly, and we have to wonder if Etsuko’s marriage, or even the world itself, has been thoroughly distorted by this alien presence—or if this is, as they say, Earth all along.
After the trembling moment at the hospital the anomalies mount and are impossible to ignore, including several wonderful 30s-style montages of radars, the moon looming giant, and radio reports of terrible storms from which Etsuko and Tetsuo wake up to find the world dry and the population untroubled. Kurosawa’s sly minimalism and Tourneurian suggestion of off-screen menace threads the wicked line between reality and nightmares, and despite the high concept nature of Foreboding, the end-of-the-world is conceived for the most part as simply, as the title suggests, an uneasy feeling.
In a shift that betrays the film’s televisual origins, the story starts sharing its perspective with Testuo after Etsuko discovers her husband has become one of the alien “guides” to Dr. Makabe. The wife—increasingly brave and independent—is contrasted to her queasy, weasley mate, a collaborator facilitating the concept-harvesting by choosing the doctor’s victims. Strangely immune to the alien’s powers, Etsuko becomes first detective, and then the observer to the alien’s ground level recon for an imminent invasion. Finding her husband weak and complicit and herself unexpectedly empowered, Etsuko tries to help him. Tetsuo tries to break his ties but finds his body painfully linked to his alien partner, his grimacing pain the mark of betrayal. Etsuko’s immunity makes her a critical person of interest to both species: after a massacre at the hospital, convincingly imagined as Makabe simply walking through a crowd and people crumbling to his feet as he goes past, the Ministry of Health tries to use her to negotiate with the visitor. But she just wants to relieve Tetsuo’s pain, and so, as another pair also did in Before We Vanish, the troubled couple decide to flee and try to save themselves rather than fight for humanity. Lovers on the run—though how much do they love one another, really? It’s more likely each is all the other has left.
That this film and Before We Vanish inhabit the same world but tell different versions of the same story suggests something truly and wonderfully eerie: that perhaps all of Kurosawa’s dread-laden films are fragmented, prismatic pieces of the same decimated world, vacant but for ghosts desperate to prove themselves alive. Yûsuke Hayashi’s score, lush, dramatic and irony-free, is another call back to 1960s psycho-thrillers, but above all, both of these Tomohiro Maekawa adaptations feel very inspired by Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its flailing, desperate evocation of a threadbare apocalypse happening in the house next door, one town over, or just on the other side of the mountain. “The world could end at any moment,” says Etsuko’s co-worker before she, too will be harvested, “I’m surprised it hasn’t.”