Thursday, July 14, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: Sayonara

That android is an android—and she acts, to an extent. Geek media sensation Geminoid F reprises her role as Reona the android in this feature adaptation of Oriza Hirata’s one-act stage play. It has its issues, but she is not one of them. In fact, Geminoid F is usually on-screen when the film transcends it limitations. Novelty is still the primary appeal of Koji Fukada’s Sayonara (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Nuclear disaster has irreparably struck Japan and the nation is toast. There is a lottery to determine the evacuation order, but the fix appears to be in. As an ailing South African whose parents were ironically granted asylum, Tanya is presumably at the bottom of the list. Yet, the listless woman hardly seems to care. She seems content to catnap through doomsday, while her android helper Reona does her best to maintain a sense of normalcy.

There is indeed something deeply compelling about these doomed people keeping up appearances as the inevitable approaches. Much like the special delivery android in Sion Sono’s Whispering Star, Reona often seems more human than her aloof owner. Yet, it is Makiko Murata who emotionally anchors the film as Tanya’s guilt-ridden friend Sano, whose terrible crime guarantees she will be the last to be expatriated. Unfortunately, when her character makes a dramatic exit, it cuts the heart out of the film.

Frankly, there are times the audience will just want to give Bryerly Long’s Tanya a good shake. She could at least try to stay awake during her own movie. In contrast, Geminoid F seems quite warm and endearing. In a further role reversal, it is Reona the caretaker who is confined to a wheelchair (as Geminoid F is in real life, because her creators never mastered the engineering of walking), due to Tanya negligence.

On paper, it sounds rather ironic and arguably problematic that the most sympathetic characters in Sayonara are a machine and a homicidal mother. Of course, that is sort of the point, but it gets lost amid Fukuda’s dreamy long takes and ever so slightly pretentious poetry readings. The underlying concept and related themes had potential, but they required a tighter, sharper, more focused and concise execution. A missed opportunity, but also a notable digital cultural curio, Sayonara screens this Sunday (7/17) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.