The Whispering Star
ひそひそ星「Hiso Hiso Boshi」
Running Time: 101 mins.
Release Date: May 14th, 2016
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono (Screenplay)
Starring: Megumi Kagurazaka, Kenji Endo, Yuto Ikeda, Mori Kouko,
The Whispering Star was originally created and screened as part of an art exhibition which had the theme of dystopia running through it. That theme is more than adequately captured in this black fable about a robot travelling amidst the remnants of humanity. It was shot in different locations in Fukushima prefecture, turning depopulated and irradiated areas into a futuristic landscape that speaks of hopelessness, pollution, and abandonment delivered in slow sketches until the film ends on a touching note of human contact. It shows good control of material from Sion Sono but that’s to be expected from a man who has been in the industry since the 80s.
At the start of the film we learn that multiple nuclear disasters and other mistakes have forced people to migrate to the stars. Humans are scattered across a myriad of planets and are on the verge of extinction as their will to live and explore flickers out in the face of technology and ennui. What keeps people hanging on are robots with AI who operate an interplanetary delivery system, facilitating a new sort of human contact.
Our main character is Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka), a delivery person taking packages across the galaxy. She gently glides between planets for years at a time in a spaceship shaped like a Japanese bungalow with rocket boosters attached to it. These journeys are mostly uneventful and quiet. Inter-titles show the days falling away, her only distraction being to make tea in the kitchen, lie on the tatami listening to a leaky tap, perform maintenance on herself – replacing batteries and fluids – and cleaning up the ship. She isn’t alone. Whispering every so often to Yoko is the child-like voice of her spaceship’s operating machine. Neither understands why humans have the need to send each other seemingly insignificant objects like fishing tackle and a single crumpled cigarette that take years to be delivered but with so much spare time between deliveries and with each encounter with a person on each desolate planet she visits, Yoko edges closer to conceiving the importance of human connection.
Coming to you from the director of joyfully deranged and chaotic experiences like Love Exposure (2009) and Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) is a complete left turn of a title, a contemplative film, presenting the cosmic joke of humanity’s extinction whilst sneaking in the idea of the power of memories and nostalgia to sustain us. This is a unique experience in cinema. Sort of like Koji Fukada’s 2016 “End of Japan thanks to nuclear energy” film Sayonara but actually enjoyable as well as tragic.
Whispering Star was Sono’s first feature with his newly established independent production company and the realisation of a script he wrote over two decades ago. The material was reworked to reflect the ongoing nuclear crisis in Fukushima, something he directly addressed in the past with The Land of Hope (2012) and Himizu (2012). Made in 2015, the same year that he released four commercial feature films including Tag and Shinjuku Swan, this is a deeply personal film that shows his commitment to an area, a people, that is admirable and necessary at a time when the issue of Fukushima risks slipping from collective memory. That the film deals with memory is clearly no accident.
Sono uses the coastal city of Namie, Fukushima, and the surrounding areas to play the parts of distant planets. The power of cinema – dolly shots and long shots etc. – delivers these wrecked and wasted locations as we see boats pitched up in fields as Yoko cycles along road between them, desolate waterfronts with lonely old men wandering around with nothing but the sound of a tin can crunching underfoot to distract from the sound of the sea, fields with barren trees and clumps of overgrown pampas grass swaying in the breeze. Local residents play the inhabitants of these wrecked worlds, and they are all placed in strange situations, either roaming rubble-strewn locations waiting for Yoko and her delivery, manning stalls on desolate beaches, or dressed up in fancy clothes but with nowhere to go, just waiting for some end with the melancholy strains of an opera and the sound of wind to provide company. They are ghosts of some unknown past and a cold future in shattered landscapes ruined by humanity. The decision to shoot in black and white proves to be a wise one as a sense of coldness seeps from the screen. The use of these elements create a specific atmosphere that speaks of desolation, ennui and enervation.
For a filmmaker used to creating operatic levels of drama, action, and suspense, this is remarkably silent and still film which makes sense considering we are following a robot floating through space and visiting the last vestiges of mankind over the span of years. Sono uses cinematic form to emphasise movement and noise amidst the stillness and silence. Noise comes from the seemingly inconsequential conversations between Yoko and her ship’s AI, the few isolated humans she encounters in lonely locales, and the chores she performs to pass the time. This is an anti-sci-fi film in the sense that the awe and wonder of space travel are undercut by the tedium and normalcy of everyday life and the emphasis is less on tech and more on the power of emotion which is on display with no distractions from alien antics.
Far from being boring or desperately sad, the quick interchange between interesting camera angles keeps the pace lively and there’s some oddball comedy thanks to the ship’s AI which is sometimes childish and needles Yoko. There is mordant humour in some of the contacts Yoko has with the human characters and their twists and turns deliver the idea that deliveries are more personal even if the items are seemingly pointless. The more Yoko sees, the more personal they become and the small hope they offer people with nothing to do but wait and contemplate memories grows in importance.
Death hovers at the edge of the frame from the get-go and begins to enter the centre. Holding it at bay is a fantastic performance from Megumi Kagurazaka, Sono’s real-life wife. Often times in the centre of the screen, she shows great emotional control and provides an even-tempered energy to proceedings whilst also hinting at mysterious emotional processes that may be working away inside her robotic form. The film culminates in a visually memorable scene involving her walking through a corridor surrounded by shoji screen with the silhouettes of people doing wholesome family things together, eating, playing a piano, playing catch moving on the washi. There’s so much movement and meaning in each shadow and a pure expression of emotion is to be found. It’s a last, fragile bastion of human emotion and the scene suggests that even if people are on the way out, they still have something to give to the stars. Seeing Yoko touched by human emotion at the end offers some hope.
The change in styles won’t be a surprise to long-term fans who are used to Sono mixing gory horrors film like Suicide Club (2001) with a dense existential dramas like Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) and a truly touching tales of a family bitterly reunited due to the tragedy of cancer in Be Sure to Share (2009). What Whispering Star should do is confirm that he is one of the liveliest and bravest filmmakers in Japan. Or anywhere, for that matter. He’s a real maverick with something to say.
This film has been released in the UK thanks to Third Window Films.