Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: The Whispering Star

Like your local cable provider, Yoko Suzuki’s arrival window is measured in years, but at least she will wait patiently for days if you happen to be out of the house. Patience comes naturally to an android, but her curiosity develops over time. The mortal humans using her services are strange indeed. Sion Sono cranks things down for his austere, low-fi post-Fukushima science fiction allegory The Whispering Star (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

The singularity has come to pass, but with a whimper rather than a bang. Evidently, the invention of teleportation made humanity so lazy, it is nearly rendered us extinct, largely leaving the universe to androids like Suzuki. She has been on a fourteen-year mission to deliver old school packages to humans strewn throughout the known universe. Why do they hire her services, often for trivial shipments they could easily zap across space? She would like to know that herself.

As if Sono’s ascetic vision were not surreal enough, he gives everything further layers of significance by filming the scenes of deserted alien worlds in abandoned Fukushima neighborhoods, using displaced locals as his supporting cast. Admittedly, very little actually happens, but it always looks disconcertingly eerie. Hideo Yamamoto’s black-and-white cinematography is often starkly beautiful, especially during the arresting final sequence.

There is no question Whispering Star represents the auteur at his auteuriest. However, the quiet power of (Sono’s wife and “muse”) Megumi Kagurazaka as Suzuki cannot be overstated. She subtly but undeniably commands the screen. The film is also a minor triumph of prop and set design, particularly the Levittown-ish tract house style space freighter Suzuki commands. It is ridiculously whimsical, yet looks more real than most early 1980s Star Wars knock-offs.

That said, if you crave artificial colors and flavors, like narrative and dialogue, Whispering Star will drive you to distraction. Nor can we accuse him of being excessively shy when making his points. We quickly deduce Suzuki might just be more human than the surviving biological humans (a theme that will turn up in another Japan Cuts selection). However, the adventurous will find it rewarding to see these strange worlds through her stranger’s eyes. For Sono fans, it is a can’t miss film, just because of its personal significance within his body of work. Recommended for those who appreciate demanding science fiction in the tradition of Aleksey German’s Hard to be a God, The Whispering Star screens this Saturday (7/16) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.