‘The Whispering Star’ (‘Hiso Hiso Boshi’): TIFF Review

Toronto International Film Festival
Sono in space.

Hardworking Japanese director Sion Sono premiered his latest effort in Toronto.

Prolific Japanese auteur Sion Sono is having quite a busy year. His slaphappy hip-hop flick from 2014, Tokyo Tribe, will finally be released theatrically in the U.S. next month. Back in July, his gory girl thriller, Tag, premiered at the Bucheon fest just weeks after his commercially minded Yakuza melodrama, Shinjuku Swan, grabbed the number one slot at the domestic box office.

Now in Toronto, he’s unveiling the third of six -- count them, six -- features shot in 2015, trying to break a record previously held by the likes of Raul Ruiz and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or fellow countryman Takashi Miike. This latest effort, entitled The Whispering Star (Hiso Hiso Boshi), is a slickly minimalist sci-fi story that plays like a cross between an interstellar Jeanne Dielman and a post-apocalyptic vision of Japan after the 2011 earthquake. Way too slim in the plot department to achieve widescale art house play, it’s still an arrestingly made effort that should entice Sono completists – who certainly have their work cut out for them these days.

Revisiting locations from his 2012 Fukushima drama, The Land of Hope, the film is set between the abundant ruins of seaside towns destroyed by the tsunami, and the cabin of a ragtag spaceship which, with its rusty old appliances and traditional Japanese exterior, looks like something Mel Brooks could have cooked up for Spaceballs.

Onboard lives Yoko (Sono muse Megumi Kagurazaka), a beautiful 30ish cyborg powered by AA batteries, and whose mission is to deliver packages across the universe for a company called SPS. Sono slyly introduces Yoko through a series of short vignettes where we see her doing basic domestic chores: making tea, cleaning the floor, running a laundry machine, etc. Only after some time do we realize she’s on a space shuttle operated by a HAL-like computer in the shape of an old vacuum tube radio.

There are lots of other 20th century gadgets that Yoko fiddles with, including an analog tape recorder she occasionally speaks into, explaining how “mankind went on to make devastating mistakes," resulting in a universe where “humans are now an endangered species.”

Indeed, when Yoko touches down on various planets to hand-deliver packages, she lands each time in a barren wasteland that can be no other place than contemporary Japan, where several regions were devastated by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that took place over four years ago.

Like many science-fiction films, Star slowly but surely reveals itself as a parable of our self-destructive times – an artsy Interstellar with a threadbare narrative rather than one that’s forever running on hyperdrive. There’s no real plot development in a classic sense, and alongside lots of deliberately repetitive action, the only really dramatic moment involves Yoko tearing up her flight computer, causing it to ooze out foam like some sort of Cronenbergien CPU from the future.

Such a constant fusion of organic and robotic, digital and handmade, puts the viewer in a strange retro timewarp, turning Yoko -- very much like Pixar's Wall-E -- into an intermediary between a world that’s been lost and one that could perhaps be rebuilt. Captured through the exquisite black-and-white images of regular DP Hideo Yamamoto (The Grudge), the Japan portrayed in Star ultimately reminds one of the original Planet of the Apes: a land filled with artifacts of our own annihilation.

Production companies: Sono Productions
Cast: Megumi Kagurazaka
Director, screenwriter: Sion Sono
Producer: Sion Sono
Director of photography: Hideo Yamamoto

Production designer: Takeshi Shimizu
Editor: Junichi Ito
Sales agent: Nikkatsu Corporation

No rating, 100 minutes