Tokyo: ‘Sayonara’ Filmmakers Debate Future of Robot Actors

Are the days of flesh-and-blood actors numbered? Audiences at Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) now have a chance to answer the question for themselves.

Festival-goers were this weekend treated to what makers claimed is the first movie to feature an android performing opposite a human actor.

Koji Fukada’s “Sayonara,” which had its world premiere Saturday as part of TIFF’s competition section, showcases the thespian talents of Geminoid-F, an eerily lifelike female android created by roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro.

The film is adapted from a short play by Oriza Hirata, first staged in 2010 by Hirata’s Seinendan Theater Company. Japanese-speaking actress Bryerly Long, who starred opposite Geminoid-F in the original stage production, reprises the role in the movie.

“In some ways, this is a new form of puppet theater,” Long said at a TIFF press conference, as her android co-star sat quietly to one side.

Ishiguro – who also has an android copy of himself, named Geminoid HI-2 – sounded more bullish. “I think a robot can express more than human beings sometimes,” he said.

Fukada is by now a familiar face to TIFF audiences. His sophomore feature, “Hospitalité”, won the best picture award in the festival’s Japanese Eyes section in 2010. Follow-up “Au Revoir l’été” screened in competition in 2013.

The director, who is also a member of Seinendan, adapted Hirata’s 15-minute play into a full-length feature. He chose to make Long’s character a South African refugee living in an irradiated near-future Japan, where explosions at the country’s nuclear power plants have forced a nationwide evacuation.

The topic of nuclear power is still highly controversial in post-Fukushima Japan, though Fukada insisted that he wasn’t taking sides.

“It’s not an anti-nuclear film,” he said. “But I think people who are pro-nuclear should watch this film and think about it.”

Sayonara” goes on general release in Japan on Nov. 21. Hirofumi Arai (“100 Yen Love”) and Seinendan’s Makiko Murata also star. The film was produced by Phantom Film. World sales are handled by ColorBird.

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