The Whispering Star (2015)

Yoko works for the Space Postal Service, delivering packages to distant planets. Her only companion is the onboard computer, which seems to be malfunctioning. Yoko is a humanoid robot who spends her days engaged in everyday chores, making tea, cleaning the ship, and listening to old tapes that she recorded detailing her travels. This existence is punctuated by her arrival on a number of different planets where she must deliver packages to humans sent from relatives. We discover early on that due to some unknown catastrophe many of the humans in the universe are dead, meaning planets are sparsely inhabited and people separated by great distances. Yoko interacts with several of these people as she performs her duties, before setting off again in her ship. Throughout she wonders why it is that humans, and only humans, feel a need to send each other things.

Shot in black-and-white the film is based on a very early story idea from director Sion Sono. Better known for his violent and outrageous films, this film seems somewhat unusual in his filmography. The Whispering Star is a very contemplative film, with little dialogue for long stretches, but it does a great job of visual storytelling and finding humour and interest in seemingly everyday things. An early example of this is the dripping tap on the spaceship. Intercut with title cards showing passing days, Sono manages to convey the length of time spent on a ship, the out-of-place feeling occasioned by a lack of reference in space, it melds humour and melancholy perfectly without the need for dialogue or explanation. Many more scenes follow this pattern, using repetition of chores to highlight the monotony of Yoko’s journey. The set design of the ship is charmingly retro, with inside and out looking like a traditional home, complete with sink, plug sockets and things which again give the film a wry comedic edge when the audience contemplates the absurdity of such a set-up. It harkens back to old science-fiction films, and could easily have been made at any time in the last half century. The ship computer is likewise reminiscent of a traditional, early 20th century view of the future, with flashing lights and an old fashioned radio design. The terrestrial scenes were shot around Fukushima, with its abandoned towns and decimated landscapes providing a poignant backdrop for the drama. This also allows for some incredible shots without the use of special effects or set-dressing, such as boats grounded in the middle of a field, crumbling buildings and deserted streets. The cinematography is spectacular and each scene is shot with care. Megumi Kagurazaka is incredible as Yoko and carries the film for large parts single-handedly. Despite being trapped with her on the ship for long stretches, there is enough nuance and charisma in her performance that it is not hard to spend so much time with her.

The Whispering Star is a film about isolation and a post-apocalyptic society still clinging to some sense of normality. The small communities scattered throughout the universe are attempting to reach out to one another through sending gifts and this speaks powerfully to the human urge to social interaction. Life is fragile and transitory and it is during this brief span that humans must attempt to connect and make sense of their surroundings. It is also a film about memory and the past. As Yoko listens to her recordings we are forced to think about time passing, again referenced by the eternally dripping tap on the ship. The passage of time is important as it takes so long for Yoko to travel to each destination. The finale of the film is a spectacular sequence that wordlessly takes Yoko on a journey through various stages of life, though expressed almost as a shadow-play while Yoko herself is at the forefront. Each of the worlds Yoko travels to seems to be only an echo of what it used to be. In one scene she arrives late to deliver a package, again emphaising the importance of time, and the urgency of humans to live their lives.

Modern Love (2018)

Modern Love tells the story of a young woman Mika, who is struggling with the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend, Teru. When a new planet appears in the solar system its presence presages several inexplicable phenomenon. Mika comes into contact with her own doppelganger, and then a third lookalike Mika. These are revealed to be parallel universe versions of Mika, though the circumstances of each are slightly difference. For one, she has just met and begun dating Teru, for the other Teru has committed suicide and she has largely come to terms with his death. The three then become trapped in a time-loop and must work together to understand how to break out of this eternally recurring day. This leads Mika to uncover the mysterious Agartha, a name she had previously been introduced to by an odd customer at the travel agency where she works.

Writer and director Takuya Fukushima has crafted a compelling drama with science-fiction elements never detracting from the central themes of love and loss. The idea of parallel worlds is an interesting way to explore Mika’s psychological struggles by externalising her confusion and anxieties. The mysteries established are enough to hold your attention throughout and the sense that the world is falling apart and anything could happen makes for an exciting story. The side characters are less strong and add little to the film other than basic exposition. The direction is good and in particular the use of locations such as the empty bar and the later scenes in the rustic European setting for Agartha. Azusa Inamura gives a great performance as Mika (and the two alternate Mikas). We sense her loss and confusion as well as her various relationships with Teru. Takuro Takahashi’s Teru is also given time to shine, though less so than Mika and the two have a good chemistry.

Modern Love is about a journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with loss. Mikas psyche is fractured between her memories of Teru and her present situation of dealing with his loss. This is demonstrated in the three versions of herself that converge in the same world. Likewise the idea of being stuck in a time-loop will be familiar to those suffering with depression as it seems that she cannot move on but is forced to relive the same memories while not progressing with her own life. Particularly interesting is the concept of Agartha, which is an esoteric idea of a land that exists at the centre of a hollow earth. In this film Agartha is used both as a sort of heaven or afterlife, as well as symbolising an exploration of the human soul or psyche. In her journey to find this place and uncover its secret, Mika is in fact delving into her own mind to attempt to unravel the confused feelings of loss and try to discover a path back to her own life.

Cocolors (2017)

Fuyu and Aki are friends living in an underground community following an unknown catastrophe. All of the denizens of this subterranean city wear large helmets obscuring their faces, adding to a feeling of mystery that continues throughout the film. “Cocolors” raises a number of questions. What are they doing down here? What happened to the outside world? Will they ever return to the surface? Fuyu carries round a picture of the outside world, something he has never seen. This black and white line drawing comes to symbolise a hope that there is a better, brighter world above. Seven years later, Aki is sent to the surface and returns with coloured crayons for Fuyu to finish his drawing. As the film progresses, we slowly learn a little about their society and what happened to the world

“Cocolors” uses computer animation with a hand-drawn aesthetic that is engaging and interesting. There are a lot of little details in the backgrounds, pipes and machinery, along with the character design that add to a sense of realism. The film spends little time on explaining the world, but immerses you in the details and makes everything seem believable, drawing on elements of steam-punk and post-apocalypse fiction.

The film has a strong anti-war message about the devastation that would be caused following a nuclear holocaust. One of the great strengths is the subtlety and mystery that are sustained throughout. Especially the mystery of who or what is beneath the helmets, how they came to be underground, and what they are working towards. The film understands that most of these things are of secondary importance to the central theme of hope in hopeless situations. It certainly has a couple of head-scratching moments where reality begins to break down, something that works well with the animation style. By creating a slight sense of unreality, and keeping the characters faces obscured, the film is able to contemplate its themes without the need for the typical clichés of heroes and villains.

Metropolis (2001)

Based on the manga by Osamu Tezuka that is based on the film Metropolis (1924). The construction of a giant ziggurat by the Red Duke, leader of the Marduke group, brings huge crowds to the streets to celebrate this symbol of humanity’s progress. This is a city where robots and humans live side by side, although robots are often mistreated and hunted down if they step out of line. A detective from Japan, Ban, accompanied by his nephew, Kenichi, arrive in the city to find the killer of Professor Laughton. They are soon caught up in a plot involving the Red Duke, his homicidal protege Rock, a new type of robot, an anti-capitalist revolution, and more.

“Metropolis” does an incredible job of creating a believable city, with the bustle of crowds, airships flying overhead, machines whirring away, and the whole robot/ human society and interactions appear well thought out. There are so many details to take in that it is stunning. The influence of the original “Metropolis” is evidenced in the design of the city, it is sprawling with skyscrapers, motorways and street vendors. The jazz soundtrack gives this a unique twist on other science-fiction, and there is a blend of noir and steam-punk. The robots are clunking and unpolished, aside from Pero, the robot detective. The design of all the characters is interesting, with exaggerated features, bizarre haircuts and moustaches. It doesn’t attempt to go for realism but it remains consistent throughout. The story also does not shy away from violence, with several people being shot dead, and a number of quite emotionally distressing scenes.

The film has a lot to say about the direction that society is heading in. With increasing automation of jobs, robotics technology advancing, and the evolution of Artificial Intelligences. The haunting last words of the robot Tima “Who am I?” perfectly encapsulate many of the ideas surrounding  what robots are or may become. There is an interesting sub-plot involving the power and class distinctions between the Mardukes, a sort of Luddite religion that is strongly opposed to robotics, and the common people who have their own reasons for protesting robots.

Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Set in a future dystopia, “Dead or Alive: Final” is a speculative science-fiction involving replicants, totalitarian government and a nascent rebellion. Show Aikawa plays a replicant, imbued with powers of super-speed, able to catch bullets, and indestructible. He is taken in by a family who are fighting against the oppressive regime of a flamboyant dictator. The population are kept under control by being forced to take a pill that makes them infertile. It is suggested that procreation is no longer required in a world where replicants are prevalent. Riki Takeuchi plays a police officer who is attempting to root out and destroy the resistance fighters that threaten the dominance of the leader.

The third part of this trilogy is quite a departure from what has gone before. Being a future science-fiction it allows Takashi Miike to explore themes from a new perspective, by examining what a future Japan might look like. There is an international feel to the film, with Chinese and English spoken frequently alongside Japanese, in common with his previous work on the “Black Society Trilogy”. The idea of a population being kept in a state of oppression and forced to consume the birth control drug is a clear satire of Japan’s problems with population decline, subservience to government, and perhaps even the conservative values that typify modern society. A few of the elements may seem derivative, such as the idea of replicants, but there are definitely unique flourishes. The film is a little uneven in terms of the balance of comedy and drama. Usually, Miike is good at this, but here it is unclear what is parody and what is serious. This is partly due to the lack of money and resources to create an effective future world. The special effects are stretched to breaking point, especially towards the  end of the film. The ending is somewhat incomprehensible for another reason. It draws in scenes from the previous two “Dead or Alive” films that really have no place being here. While there are parallels between the films, sex, violence, crime, themes of childhood and fate, woven through each, and the main actors are the same, there is really little connecting them. It comes across as though the leads here are remembering past lives, but doesn’t provide the audience with enough to make any coherent point about the three films as a whole

There are some interesting ideas here, but a lot have been done before and better. The concept of replicants is raised though never fully addressed. This is exemplified in the scene where Riki Takeuchi discovers that his family are replicants. It should be a dramatic moment, but since the concept is only vaguely established in the world this revelation has little impact. The idea of a society struggling with a lack of reproduction, or the diminishment of the importance of sex and reproduction is likewise a fascinating avenue, but it seems the film always shies away from exploring anything in depth. Worth watching for a couple of standout scenes, and again capped with a bizarre, unforgettable ending, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the earlier films.