Considering Sion Sono’s prolific output in recent years and the growing breadth of genres he chooses to work with, it was only a matter of time before he made a full-blown sci-fi.1 Though experimentation is usually expected from the director, The Whispering Star is a distinct product of Sono’s peculiar, political, and often melodramatic approach to cinema.
Two key facts are established in opening title cards. The first: “machines now dominate and 80% of the population are robots with AI”. The second: “humans are now an endangered species on earth.” With that considered, it’s not surprising that the film’s sole protagonist Yoko (Megumi Kagurazaka) is revealed early to be one of the many robots. Beginning with Yoko in conversation with the on-board navigational system, ‘6-7 MAH Em’, she quickly establishes herself as an interstellar postwoman, moving throughout the universe for deliveries and defined by a certain intangible loneliness.
Almost immediately, The Whispering Star sets itself apart from most Sono films. Shot in black-and-white, with longer takes and a greater emphasis on silence and space, the typical maximalism of the director is replaced with a certain claustrophobic and voyeuristic atmosphere. The obvious parallels with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are quickly floated away from, and the film becomes a more introspective, philosophical, and uncharacteristically meditative piece.
Sono regular Hideo Yamamoto’s cinematography shifts with this change of pace. Scenes shot in the unpopulated and sparsely furnished interior of the spaceship – jumping between a wide range of shots and angles, coupled with frequent panning and dollying – creates a tense atmosphere, as well as a feeling of expectation; one that shortly subsides for a growing sense of isolation to take its place. This isolation is intertwined with the slowness that characterises the first two thirds of the film, set between the days of Yoko’s deliveries. It’s a pace that admittedly gets weary here and there, an uncomfortably dissonant experience to watch a Sion Sono film that doesn’t tick off the usual features.
The opening title card—“starring Megumi Kagurazaka, with the people who still live in the temporary housing units due to the nuclear disaster in Namie, Tomioka, and Minam Soma, Fukushima”—gives a context for The Whispering Star, one that doesn’t become clear until Yoko lands for her first delivery for Fufu Fonfon. Within the narrative of the film, this is a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape. In reality, the shooting locations are evacuated sections of Japan’s Fukushima region. Where the establishing hour is an interesting stylistic experiment for Sono, the final 30 minutes offer lush—albeit decidedly apocalyptic—set design from Takeshi Shimizu, with Sono’s imagination running overtime as he frantically works to expand the scope of his work, towards more familiar territory. These final scenes are structured around Yoko moving between an array of intricately assembled sets; abandoned offices, a mansion, forests, and a mysterious hallway framed by silhouettes of figures on the either side. In these, Sono imbues his film within a broader conversation; as a director who has frequently addressed the 2011 earthquake, as well as its fallout.2
Through the lens of Sono’s newfound minimalism, this focus is condensed, making room for a film of palpable humanism, adorned with performances from those affected by the crisis. In one scene, Yoko encounters a scavenger wearing a white suit who wants her to understand the importance of cycling. It’s uneasy, it’s surreal, yet at the same time there’s a warmth to it, Yoko’s brief encounters framed as valuable in their own way. A shot on a beach, with a delivery made to an older lady sitting behind a weathered convenience stand, ends up as one of Sono’s most lasting images.3 These mark the points at which the film seems to mature and gain a sense of focus.
The Whispering Star is the product of a director pushing his limits, who opts to reconcile his penchant for maximalism with a sparser cinematic vision. It may struggle to find its audience, considering its distance from the works that established his quasi-cult following, but it’s also likely to open him up him to those unlikely to have ventured into his more violent and psychological works. Although it’s far from perfect, and certainly doesn’t sit amongst the strongest works in his filmography, The Whispering Star remains a worthwhile work in its own right.