After a series of freak nuclear accidents, Japan finds itself having to embark on the slow, painful task of evacuating its population. Life becomes a waiting game to see when and were residents will be resettled. Stores start to close, public services gradually shut down and towns empty as the population leaves. People gather in local halls to see whether their ID number has been posted meaning they are next to leave. While those whose numbers are not posted start to wonder why they’ve been left behind.
In this context we meet Tanya (Bryerly Long), a South African emigre living in rural Japan with a robot named Leona (Geminoid F). Tanya is ill, possibly depressed and prone to moving slowly, sometimes spending the whole day lounging on her sofa. Leona tries to help, even though she’s confined to a mechanised wheelchair since her damaged robotic legs can no longer be repaired. Leona recites poetry to Tanya, or tries to answer her questions, not just about their plight, but also about Tanya’s past, her interactions with a local friend (Makiko Murata) and her slightly aloof boyfriend Satoshi (Hirofumi Arai).
The press for Sayonara focussed attention on the collaboration between the acclaimed Japanese playwright Oriza Hirata and robot scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro. But, in so many ways, the film’s origins as a play or the fact that one of the lead characters is played by a robot are not the most interesting aspects of this film. Which is saying something since both the drama and staging of Sayonara and the empathy the robot Geminoid F manages to create in the viewer are truly remarkable.
What makes Sayonara such an outstanding film, worthy of being considered amongst the most fascinating recent Japanese Sci-Fi films is the way the director Koji Fukada manages to hold so many themes in tension in such a restrained and thoughtful way. This is a very deep film, reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s work, especially his way of drawing attention to metaphysical themes by using long takes, placing actors in natural seasons, evoking the passing of time and seasons with changes in weather and the use of long camera panning movements. Like a Tarkovsky film, everything in Sayonara seems to functioning on both a real and symbolic plane at the same time.
Sayonara’s themes, from the peril of nuclear disaster, an ageing population, challenges to rural life, the status of refugees, the place of foreigners in Japan, interracial love, the use of robots in the care of the sick, to Japan’s possible decline on the world stage make for a heady and brave mix of issues in the context of contemporary Japanese politics and culture.
And, viewers are given plenty of time to contemplate those themes as the interactions with the characters are mostly played out at a very languid tempo and often intercut with slow moments as characters travel from one place to another, or simply sit, bathed in the nostalgic (and possibly toxic) yellow glow of the sun. Bryerly Long’s performance is particularly restrained, even stilted at times, perhaps drawing comparison to Kiera Knightley’s turn in Never Let Me Go, or Brit Marling in Another Earth (both films matching, in some ways, the mood of Sayonara).
Perhaps the question hanging over Sayonara is whether film-goers unfamiliar with the Japan-centric issues at the core of the film, or impatient with the film’s extremely restrained pace, might see enough here to sustain their interest. Quite possibly not. But then again, this kind of deeply metaphysical Science Fiction, whether it comes from a master like Tarkovsky, or a contemporary genius like Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color) is always an acquired taste. So, for those with the palate and patience for this kind of dish, there is a lot to savour in Sayonara.