Robot star illuminates human themes in nuclear disaster film

TOKYO (AP) — The film set in Japan after a nuclear catastrophe depicts greed, discrimination, loyalty, beauty — traits made more heartbreakingly human by the cast’s inhuman star — a robot.

In this eerie film, aptly called “Sayonara,” people fearfully wait to be picked for evacuation abroad to flee radiation. Politics is involved. The sick, people with criminal records and foreigners are doomed.  

The android, created by robot researcher Hiroshi Ishiguro, steals the show. The director Koji Fukada refers to the robot as “actress,” and it’s listed as a member of the cast. The robot, called Geminoid F, speaks in flat tones, wheels instead of walks, and apologizes for not understanding emotions.

And by sticking by its owner, with a quiet mechanical loyalty, the robot proves a machine might be far more human than some real-life people. “Sayonara,” shown in the competition section of the Tokyo International Film Festival, which closes Saturday, is a stark commentary on the inhumanity of society.

And it’s a sobering reminder of the realities of post-Fukushima Japan. The reactor meltdowns at the coastal nuclear plant following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami became the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Keeping the reactors stable still requires tons of water daily, and tens of thousands of displaced people may never be able to return to the heavily radiated communities nearest the plant.

The nuclear catastrophe in “Sayonara” is even more deadly, requiring the entire nation to be evacuated. “Even though contaminated water is leaking, our nation’s leader claims things are under control,” Fukada said of the Fukushima disaster. “I find it extremely disturbing that it’s as though the accident never happened.”

Bryerly Long, an American from Washington, D.C., who has lived in Japan for five years working with a theater troupe, delivers a touchingly forlorn portrayal as the robot’s owner. Seriously ill and unprotected as a foreigner, her character can only wait for a lonely death, abandoned even by her Asian lover.

Long recalled that her favorite scene is when her character realizes the woman-shaped robot’s sensibilities of beauty were acquired from herself. “That is the most heartbreaking scene in this film: The thought that the person whom I was dialoguing with, this robot — actually, I was only dialoguing with myself,” she said.

Shot in a surprisingly efficient 10-day period in what Fukada calls the perfect “Andrew Wyeth landscape” of Nagano prefecture, the film depicts the theme of death, he said, by juxtaposing a dying woman with a machine that will never die.

“Even if you have a family, no matter how many friends you may make, even if someone is right next to you, even if you’re holding hands, a human being is trapped in the physical body and alone,” said Fukada, an unpretentious man who vows to keep directorial powers to a minimum to encourage creativity from the other participants.

Fukada believes it’s not far-fetched to think a robot-loving society like Japan will use them more and more as companions. Fukada added the nuclear element to the original script, which was based on a 2010 play that explored human-robot relations, also starring Long and Geminoid F.

He purposely avoided computer graphics to drive home his point about the ambiguous, perhaps perilous, border between human and machine. Directing the android was easier than directing people, although he said with a laugh he had to watch to not break the robot as its repairs would come with a 10 million yen ($100,000) bill.

“The android doesn’t complain, never gets hungry and doesn’t need to sleep at all,” he said at the film festival office. As the film shows evacuees who are able leaving Japan in droves, the woman and her robot stay in a tiny house, sitting in a stretch of gray — a withering grassy terrain of solitude.

Part of their routine is visiting a bamboo grove hoping for a miracle — a glimpse of a flower seen only once in a century. When the robot still searches, after its master’s death, Fukada’s vision leaves the viewer with a painful hopelessness.

“Sayonara” opens in Japan on Nov. 21. Overseas screenings are undecided.

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