The Whispering Star (Cert U)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray combo (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 102 minutes approx.
When one thinks of Sion Sono, his subversive four-hour epic Love Exposure, the violent glee of Why Don’t You Play In Hell? or the equally claret soaked exploitation satire of Tag immediately comes to mind. Yet, like fellow maverick Takashi Miike, Sono completely switches direction once again for this minimalist sci-fi rumination.
Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka), is an android working for the SDS, travelling through space delivering packages to distant planets. With only her computer for company Yoko bides her time with everyday chores aboard her spaceship, her only contact with others being the few remaining humans she meets on the various planets she arrives at.
Not much of a plot but Sono is in restrained “show don’t tell” mode for The Whispering Star, relying on allusion and symbolism over his usual approach of aiming directly for the jugular and bludgeoning his audience with intense viscera. Revisiting the fallout of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster which he addressed in 2012’s The Land Of Hope, Sono adapts a script he first wrote over 25 years ago to express his opprobrium on this subject once more.
Sono’s focus in this film is loneliness and what it means to be human, which he ties into the Fukushima incident by setting the story in a post-apocalyptic world where robots and AIs outnumber humans for the first time, after “a devastating mistake” wiped out most of the human race. It seems Sono isn’t ready for forgive the Japanese government just yet and isn’t afraid to say so.
Yoko’s ship is not your average spacecraft – externally it resembles an old bungalow with its front porch attached, similar to those ravaged and abandoned in the 2011 disaster, something one might expect to see in a comedy like Futurama. The interior of the ship isn’t exactly hi-tech either, with the main navigation control panel being the most advanced looking piece of technology whist boasting a 1950’s sci-fi flick veneer.
The malfunctioning computer, 6-7 MAH Em, resembles a 1950’s radio while Yoko records her thoughts on an old reel-to-reel tape machine. Regular 20th century household appliances, like a tap, oven, fridge and kettle are at Yoko’s disposal, cleaning equipment is a good old mop and bucket, and to complete this retro theme, Yoko herself is powered by eight AA batteries.
It all sounds like the makings of a caustic satire but Sono isn’t messing around here. Even though the script was first written during the pre-mobile phone/internet boom, one can infer, rightly or wrongly, that this aspect is a love letter to the days when our world wasn’t so technologically dependant and obsessed, flying the flag for the simpler methods of leading a daily life that did the job just fine.
After the first couple of deliveries, Yoko’s curiosity leads her to peek in some of the other boxes and wonder why humans value the array of oddities, like a strip of camera film, a pencil, some paints, and a cigarette butt. Yet, once delivered the recipient is fulfilled, still baffling Yoko but she learns to accept it, slowly marking the path of understanding and assimilation to these human only worlds she visits.
With the exception of brief shot of a radiant verdant landscape, the film is shot entirely in black and white to give this an arthouse sensibility to it to tacitly underline the aura of maturity the permeates through this project. Sono is known for breaking the rules and his anarchic presentation of the world as he sees it but this rebellious streak seems all but evaporated via the austere monochrome imagery.
But this isn’t art for art’s sake or any delusion of pretension – you can tell Sono is stripping everything back so the focus is on the content and not the packaging. Yoko’s aimless solitude onboard the ship wouldn’t feel as hopeless and melancholic if the screen was lit with a bright colour palette; similarly, the desolate wastelands of the planets visited would not emanate the same eerie emptiness and spartan chill in glorious Technicolor.
Fukushima doubles as the barren planets Yoko visits, with a few of the remaining local residents making up the support cast. This might seem cheeky and thrifty but it not only works on a visual level but it adds weight to Sono’s trenchant commentary. Perhaps the key scene, which also stands as one of the more surreal moments, is when Yoko makes a delivery on a beach, the view made up of random people standing aimlessly about on the sand as if that is their lot in life.
Pushing the artistic agenda is the scene of Yoko’s final on screen delivery (her mission will last decades and the people are prepare to wait) to a strange lengthy corridor where the walls are screens, upon which we see a series of tableau made up of silhouettes of the people behind them. This stunning effect resembles the works of pioneering German animator Lotte Reiniger and the use of shadows by the German Expressionists, such is the evocative nature of its poetic beauty.
Essentially this is a one-woman show for Megumi Kagurazaka and she does her hubby (Sono) proud in being such a captivating protagonist whilst seemingly doing little more than cleaning, drinking tea and carrying boxes. Yoko is not just our anchor in this bleak future world but also the only connection between what was, what is, and what might be, and Mrs. Sono makes for a convincing android without resorting to the clichéd trope of being a soulless and empathy free machine.
As personal a project this is for Sono, it is also his biggest gamble in how audiences will take to it given the reputation he has for outlandish and provocative films, a category The Whispering Star doesn’t fit into. It will divide opinion for this reason, but its demonstration that there is more to Sono than sex and violence should see its virtues be more widely recognised over time.
Japanese 2.0 DTS-MA HD
The Sion Sono – Feature Length Documentary
Rating – ****
Man In Black