Running Time: 112 mins.
Director: Koji Fukada
Writer: Koji Fukada, Oriza Hirata (Screenplay),
Starring: Bryerly Long, Hirofumi Arai, Geminoid F, Makiko Murata, Yuko Kibiki, Nijiro Murakami,
Koji Fukada’s (Hospitalité, Au revoir l’été) 2015 movie Sayonara is billed as the first ever film with an android as one of the stars. As intriguing as seeing an artificial life-form act seems to be, the final result is a pretty lifeless affair in both acting and story terms but it does have some emotional impact.
It is based on a collaboration between Japanese playwright Oriza Hirata (a familiar collaborator with Fukada) and a leading robotics scientist named Hiroshi Ishiguro who works at Osaka University and has been developing different models of the Geminoid androids since 2005. Their team-up resulted in a 15-minute stage-play that travelled Japan with people being able to see the actor Bryerly Long conversing with the latest in android technology. With the two actors on stage and sat down it was a largely static affair in a story where a human woman comes to terms with her impending death through talking and the recitation of poetry. The film largely adopts the stage-play from what I have read and, despite looking good, suffers from relaying the content straight in an end-of-the-world tale that takes two hours but feels longer.
Due to multiple unexplained explosions at nuclear power plants across the country, the population of Japan is being evacuated overseas away from the spread of radioactive contamination. Tanya (Bryerly Long) is a foreign refugee with an illness so she will be among the last to leave while healthier Japanese escape after being selected through a government-run lottery system. She lives in a comfortable house embedded between fields and bamboo forests but is increasingly alone as residents in the nearby town leave. Her boyfriend Satoshi (Hirofumi Arai) and her friend Sano (Makiko Murata) visit her from time to time but she relies on an android named Reona (Geminoid F) who has been with her since childhood for company. Her loyal companion supports her in her final days as everyone around her leaves…
Koji Fukada strikes an apocalyptic tone from the get-go with use of news footage and ominous reports of evacuations heard over scenes. What helps the end-of-the-world atmosphere is the use of landscapes – mostly countryside or small-town and mostly depopulated. Streets are empty, a ramshackle bon odori dance is organised at a shelter, and you notice that nobody dares go outside due to fears over radiation. Another aspect that works in the films favour is silence. There is so much that the slightest noise on the soundtrack seems like violence and the score, made up of violins and piano, is pretty effective in underlining tragedy. The only constant sound is that of a desolate wind and water trickling off somewhere which matches the views of life draining away on screen.
This atmosphere is a double-edged sword because it’s not the most exciting apocalypse to be involved in especially when it’s affecting the actors as Bryerly Long gives what can be described as a lethargic performance across from an artificial intelligence which is limited in its movement. Perhaps inhibited by her acting partner who remains confined to a wheelchair and sat stock still apart from facial movements, Long’s own performance echoes the android nature of Geminoid-F by feeling artificial. It remains the same when interacting with her flesh-and-blood co-stars as she lacks chemistry with her boyfriend, played with some determination by Arai, with whom she shares a lifeless sex-scene and heart-to-heart conversations, and her friend who is grieving over a personal loss. Their stories go nowhere in terms of emotional direction, except making sure Long’s character is alone with Geminoid-F.
The two characters have conversations about the past and isolation and they reference poets who dived into existential loneliness such as Rimbaud and Shuntaro Tanikawa and while it is all relevant to the time, it isn’t particularly enjoyable and it is overdone. Viewers face over an hour of this talk and it isn’t as interesting or dense in meaning as the writer thinks. The emptiness reflects the inside of the film and kills the story.
The ending is plain to see coming and the film slowly makes its way to it with a funereal air as it becomes mired in issues like absence, loneliness, and decay. As the story plods on, with few people around, the android reveals her own humanity – an emotional and aesthetic taste that suggests a degree of learning and highlights the tragedy of their position tucked away on a lonely hill amidst a nuclear crisis. A few arresting images are not enough to lift the film from its dull rhythm and story but it does have some emotional impact, maybe because the audience has been deluged with the theme.
Overall, this is one for people interested in seeing all of Koji Fukada’s work. That he dares to use an android is to be commended but the source material restricts him from anything exciting or ambitious. Or fun. This isn’t fun or as profound as it thinks it is. If you want to see artificial life acting on screen, well, viewers would be better advised to watch Short Circuit (1986). Can you name a better film with a robot co-star?