One of six features completed by the exhaustively prolific Sion Sono in 2015 (perhaps in an unofficial competition with Takashi Miike to determine who is Japan’s most productive filmmaker), The Whispering Star is a minimalist science fiction exercise which marks a welcome change of pace from the director’s patented cinema of excess. Stunningly shot in black-and-white by Hideo Yamamoto, the film’s slender narrative follows Yoko (Megumi Kagurazaka), a cyborg who travels across the galaxy in a spacecraft that looks like a train carriage delivering packages for an intergalactic shipping company called SPS.
It’s structured as a series of lo-fi vignettes which either find Yoko passing time aboard Rental Spaceship Z (she has only a HAL-like computer system for company) or delivering packages to isolated humans living on various planets which, no matter how far flung, look a lot like Japan circa 2015. Humans have become become an endangered species as a result of what Yoko vaguely refers to as their “devastating mistakes”. 80% of the population is now comprised of robots equipped with sophisticated AI but Yoko finds her curiosity about mankind piqued when she discovers an audio diary left by her predecessor. When not listening to these recordings, Yoko undertakes daily chores, such as dusting and doing the laundry, while partaking in human habits like drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, and making occasional clumsy physical blunders when distracted. Yoko is a strangely relatable protagonist, perhaps because her surroundings are familiarly ordinary (the spacecraft interior is designed like an average apartment with Sono’s sparse sound design repeatedly emphasising water dripping from a leaky faucet) while being so eerily solitary that one sympathises with the cyborg’s isolation, even though she is incapable of feeling lonely.
Andrei Tarkovsky or Stanley Kubrick would seem to be obvious influences here but a relationship between The Whispering Star and Sono’s socially conscious output becomes apparent once the spacecraft touches down. Sono reveals a decaying ‘found future’ as Yoko fulfills her deliveries with these scenes being shot in the evacuated zones of Fukushima, as explored in Land of Hope (2012). Sono utilizes non-professional actors from local communities to play the recipients, who can expect to receive their packages a couple of years ahead or behind the estimated delivery date, adding poignancy to Yuko’s brief inter-actions. She meets an elderly man who has accessorised his shoe with a crushed soda can to make a crunchy sound when he traverses the deserted streets, a playful modification that can be taken as a bid for creativity in a barren landscape or just a way of enlivening a walk around a ghost town. He explains the joy of riding a bike to Yuko and she gradually begins to learn from humans rather than merely observing them as living artifacts, eventually coming to understand their connection to objects. The scattered future society imagined by Sono here is one that has sought to go back to basics in its dying days out of a yearning for a simpler time. Yoko informs us that teleportation is available but humans now prefer not to make instantaneous leaps in time and space, or have their items delivered in a flash because, “The longing for things far away makes the heart beat in excitement.”
The film’s episodic and deliberately repetitive structure is reinforced by Sono’s use of title cards providing the day of the week, but not actual dates. It’s suggestive of an indefinite period wherein the needs of the last vestiges of human civilisation are catered to until the time comes for the next level of existence. Yoko is a self-aware product of this gradual transition and wonders if she will ever meet the successor who was assembled in the same factory as to do would at least bring her life cycle full circle. Cyborgs may not succumb to boredom when undertaking mundane tasks, but Sono posits that becoming better acquainted with humans can make them prone to melancholic introspection.
This is the most pared-down Sono film since Room (1993) with limited camera movement, long periods of silence accompanied by the barely audible hum of the spacecraft, and dialogue spoken in hushed tones so as not to disturb the universe. There are moments of humour from the retro technology on display (Yoko is powered by AA batteries which she changes herself) but The Whispering Star is best appreciated as a contemplative, occasionally solemn, and visually striking rumination on the precarious state of contemporary Japan from the distance of an unspecified future.
The Whispering Star is showing as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on Saturday July 16 at 4:45pm at Japan Society.