A delegation of anime huggy pillows appeared on the red carpet at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival, but they weren’t the only non-human stars whose work was featured at the event. Also screening was Sayonara, a new film written and directed by Koji Fukuda. The fact that one of the Japanese-produced movie’s two female leads is a foreigner would be notable enough on its own, but what really makes Sayonara unique is that her costar is an android.
Sayonara features American actress Bryerly Long as Tania, a woman living in the Japanese countryside. In a story choice that’s clearly meant to be evocative of the real-life Fukushima nuclear incident of 2010, the Japan depicted in Sayonara has become severely contaminated with radiation, and residents of the country are being evacuated to other nations.
But, due to the scale of the undertaking, not everyone can leave Japan at once. Evacuees are assigned a priority number, and Anna’s is especially low, meaning that she stays behind as the surrounding area becomes progressively deserted. She’s not totally alone, though, because with her is Leona, the helper android who’s been by Tania’s side since she was a sickly child.
Leona isn’t a heavily made-up actress, though. Nor is she a digital effect adding in post-production. The role is played by an actual robot, created by researcher Hiroshi Ishiguro. Ishiguro is best known for his Geminoid HI-2, an android which he modeled after himself, right down to its initials. Appearing in Sayonara is an even more lifelike machine, the Geminoid F, presumably standing for “Female.”
But despite her inorganic status, Sayonara treats its android actress with all the deference of a regular cast member, so much so that we’re not sure if we should use “the” before Geminoid F.
▼ Geminoid F’s cast listing on the movie’s official website, which includes the information “Born 2010 in Tokyo”
But while Geminoid F, which is remotely operated, can speak and alter its expression, it can’t walk. The film’s producers get around this by making Leona a robot with a damaged knee and siting her in a wheelchair.
A lack of mobility isn’t the only limitation Leona has, though. As a robot, she can’t understand the concept of death, but that’s the very issue that Tania, sick with radiation poisoning, is dealing with. As a matter of fact, the entire film seems wrapped in a slowly but irreversibly advancing sense of finality, with streams of evacuees marching past fields of withering vegetation in the pale light of the late afternoon.
With advanced humanoid robots, there’s always the danger of repulsing the audience with an appearance that falls within the unnerving uncanny valley. As shown in the trailer, though, Geminoid F appears to have avoided this pitfall, with the overall effect far less creepy than that of many other androids. And in one particularly powerful shot of the two leads, it almost seems like Tania has become the robot and Leona the human, as the afflicted woman’s face becomes a mask of panic-hardened fear, while her helper machine adopts a serene, understanding countenance.
Struggling to grasp what it means to be alive, and for life to end, Anna can be heard in the preview offering her half-formed conceptualization. “When night falls, we look at the stars. During the day, we talk to many different people. And then, I think, we find what we love most. Once we find it, we treasure it, and live until we die.”
Sayonara opens at theaters in Japan on November 21. A listing of theaters screening the film can be found here.