Don’t say “Sayonara” to human actors just yet. A provocative experiment in whether androids could share the stage with people — for which Japanese playwright Oriza Hirata partnered with Osaka U. robotics guru Hiroshi Ishiguro, inventing a two-hander to be performed between a flesh-and-blood thesp and a stunningly lifelike machine — loses much of its interest on the bigscreen, where actors have been co-starring opposite robots of one form or another for decades. Whereas the stageplay attracted those curious to witness firsthand what android acting entails, on film, the effect dissipates moments after audiences set eyes on Ishiguro’s uncannily realistic Geminoid F, revealing instead the myriad dramatic shortcomings that will limit “Sayonara’s” welcome abroad, following its local-pride premiere at the Tokyo Film Festival.
Much as magic tricks lose their potential to inspire awe when re-created onscreen, or an actor’s impressive ability to recite a long Shakespearean soliloquy is diminished when multiple takes and editing are involved, the fact that Geminoid F is actually capable of giving a nuanced performance doesn’t really register here. If anything, the robot seems unusually limited, artificially confined to a wheelchair because its range of motion doesn’t extend much beyond its eyes, mouth and neck — which could explain why human co-star Bryerly Long (who also appeared in the play) delivers her own role in a such non-naturalistic near-monotone.
The trouble with translating Hirata’s Android Theater Project to the screen stems from the fact that the short-form play wasn’t an especially compelling piece of material to begin with. While not exactly post-apocalyptic, the glacially sensitive chamber drama takes place after a nuclear meltdown, centering on the bond between a terminally ill woman afflicted with radiation poisoning and the slightly outdated companion droid who shares her home. The action, such as it is, consists of this longtime duo reciting poetry back and forth between themselves, staring at one other from across a dimly lit living room and going for “strolls” through the nearby wheat and bamboo patches.
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Had Hirata wanted to prove a point about android acting, he would have done better to write a dynamic buddy picture between a burnt-out cop and his renegade robot partner, or the like — something that really tested our expectations of what a virtual co-star can do. Instead, this feature adaptation falls to helmer Koji Fukada, who delivers precisely the opposite sort of movie: low-key and not especially demanding upon either of its lead performers, the film amounts to a melancholy mood piece. For Fukada, “Sayonara” fits with the same subtle emotional approach seen in previous pics “Au revoir l’ete” and “Hospitalite,” whose style critics likened to that of Eric Rohmer.
With its lovely golden-hued lensing and minimal score (impactful when the string-and-piano quintet does appear), the film encourages meditation, but doesn’t provide much basis from which to work. Long’s character, Tanya, passes long hours lounging on her couch. Other characters, including a boyfriend (Hirofumi Arai) with whom she robotically makes love and a woman mourning the loss of her child, occasionally venture out to visit. Each is assigned a lottery number and awaits his or her turn to leave the country, though Tanya expresses no real urgency, feeling more comfortable passing the days — then months, then however long it takes a human body to decompose — with her robot Leona.
The process demands equal patience from the audience, who may also feel as if they’re spending the film slowly waiting for their own lives to expire, comforted (or not) by poems by the likes of Shuntaro Tanikawa, Arthur Rimbaud and Carl Busse, each presented in its native language. Though American-born Long’s native tongue is English, she’s most awkward when speaking it, revealing just how stilted her performance must be to match Geminoid F’s. Meanwhile, the robot impresses enough that some may wonder whether there’s an actual human actor behind that facade — the way androids are depicted in such more overtly sci-fi thinkers as “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Prometheus” and “Tomorrowland.”
Philosophically speaking, there’s a certain amount of theater involved in nearly all robotics, considering how much of their design is engineered to suggest a certain sentient presence that they don’t actually possess, and yet in Geminoid F’s case, beyond her human voice, there’s no trace of emotion in her delivery, nor any intelligible design to the character’s eerie pre-programmed eye blinks. On the other hand, ultra-humanist French star Irene Jacob (a veteran of previous android-acting exercises) could conceivably help to sell the film on the strength of her involvement, though disappointingly enough, she appears only briefly as Tanya’s mother in a sequence of home-movie flashbacks — visual traces of emotional memories that neither of the film’s leading “ladies” convincingly demonstrates the ability to feel.
In fact, so flat are both performances that the film’s atmosphere frequently upstages them: a nostalgic warmth reflected by natural light, glowing earth tones and rich textured fabrics — which just might be a stylistic extension of the curious Harris Tweed fad sweeping Japan at the time of the pic’s release, or a nod to 2010’s underrated speculative romance “Never Let Me Go.” Simultaneously retro and modern, organic and technical, abstract and tangible, “Sayonara” ultimately amounts to a intriguing series of contradictions that may actually prove of greater interest to androids of the futures than it does to contempo human audiences.