'Sayonara': Tokyo Review

Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival

A poetry-reading android enlivens a depressingly stale story.

In Japan's near future, a young woman and her android companion live through the post-nuclear apocalypse.

Dark, hopeless and pretty depressing, the post-apocalyptic Japanese mood piece Sayonara is one very strange film. While a sick young woman awaits death, abandoned by her family and friends, she is comforted by her faithful android companion. The creepy character is not the android. Though an unqualified downer, there is one compelling reason to watch the film: it is the first to co-star a real android, played by a robot called “Geminoid F”. Bearing the semblance of a lovely, if somewhat old-fashioned, young lady, the companion is so remarkably lifelike that uninformed members of the audience will certainly mistake her for an actress with a waxy makeup job.

Directed by Koji Fukada, the film raises all sorts of questions about how the viewer empathizes and identifies with on-screen characters, which alone should excite festival curiosity. The story, which takes place in the near future, brings to mind the Fukushima nuclear disaster and evacuation (never specifically mentioned), which has gotten a lot of attention in recent Japanese films. But it’s an arty attraction and how far the ColorBird release can penetrate markets is a question mark.

Fukada’s screenplay is adapted from a stage play by Oriza Hirata, the founder of Japan’s Seinendan Theater Company, who with robotic scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro has developed several one-act plays for Osaka University’s Robot-Human Theater Project. Futuristic androids feature in versions of Chekov’s Three Sisters and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Whatever the results may be onstage, where physical presence and aura presumably count a great deal, under the effects of skillful cinematographic lighting, Geminoid F has a natural tendency to join the glorious ranks of R2D2, Star Trek’s Data and Blade Runner’s unforgettable replicants. Appearing outside a strictly sci-fi context, her plastic looks are certainly eerie, but nothing a Hollywood makeup department couldn't handle. Though worn-out parts confine her to a wheelchair for most of the film, there are other moments in which a human body double may have been used.    

Japan’s nuclear reactors have already exploded when the film begins, poisoning the entire country. Most of the survivors have already left, and stragglers like the South African girl Tanya (Bryerly Long), her Japanese boyfriend and her best friend are all waiting for their name to come up on the national evacuation list. Leona, the companion her father bought for her as a child, scoots around in her motorized wheelchair on errands while Tanya sleeps lethargically on the couch of her rural home. Little by little, things get worse.

Long, who acted with the android in Hirata’s widely touring stage play, creates a fragile, inactive heroine hard to warm up to. Her understated performance is perhaps dictated by a need to approach the general spirit of Geminoid F’s contained, less than effusive acting.  Radiation sickness seems to have already doomed Tanya, and she spends her days asking Leona to recite poems in English, French and Japanese, while she broods on death, loneliness, solitude, and the elusiveness of happiness. One longs for a twist that would alleviate some of her darkness, but Fukada’s expanded screenplay piles on the injustice of a dying world, wallowig in the idea of decaying bodies (Tanya’s and Leona’s) and encroaching death.

Certainly the android’s presence in the film must work differently than on stage. It’s no surprise we are rooting for Leona to assume more human traits, and she doesn’t disappoint. Unfailingly polite in a very Japanese way, she grants every wish of Tanya’s, offers maternal advice, and reads immortal poetry with feeling and aesthetic sensibility. 

A brief flashback to Tanya's happy childhood shows her cavorting with her parents (Jerome Kircher and Irene Jacob.) As for the present, it is dominated by wind effects outside the window, suggesting the spread of poisoned air, and the scale model of an old jalopy recalling the good old days. 

Production companies: Phantom Film in association with KAG, Tokyo Garage, AtomX, Addix, Letre, Katsu-do

Cast: Bryerly Long, Hirofumi Arai, Geminoid F, Makiko Murata, Nijiro Murakami, Yukio Kibiki, Jerome Kircher, Irene Jacob
Director: Screenwriter: Koji Fukada
Producers: Keisuke Konishi, Hiroyuki Onogawa, Koji Fukada, Bryerly Long

Executive producers:  Keisuke Konishi, Hideharu Konaka, Koji Fukada, Mikiyo Miyata, Daisuke Sakai, Makoto Adachi, Kazuyoshi Okuyama
Director of photography: Akiko Serizawa

Production designer: Kensuke Suzuki
Editors: Naohiro Urabe, Koji Fukada
Music: Hiroyuki Onogawa
World sales: ColorBird   
No rating, 112 minutes