Those accustomed to the manic delights of “Love Exposure,” “Himizu,” “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” and other genre mash-ups by Sion Sono will likely do a triple-take at the director credit for “The Whispering Star,” an exercise in minimalist sci-fi from one of world cinema’s most prolific maximalists. Following a lonely android through space as she delivers packages to humans scattered across the galaxy, the film plays like a live-action “Futurama” directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, though it’s not as stimulating as that description makes it sound. There’s a beating heart to Sono’s luminous elegy to the last vestiges of humanity in the universe, but the thumps are heard as faintly as the low-decibel communiques of his dutiful robot. With a whopping six films slated for release this year, Sono will be competing with himself for attention, and “The Whispering Star” may likely fall.
On the other hand, nothing stands out like an anomaly, and Sono’s utter defiance of expectation may warrant closer study from the sufficiently caffeinated. Opening with a reference to the people still living in temporary housing units due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the pic imagines a future where the mistakes of mankind have pushed it near extinction. (“Human existence is just the flicker of a candle flame.”) Though space has become more peaceful, 80% of the population are machines like Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka), an android so human-like that she catches a cold and so charmingly analog that she replaces the AA batteries in her own torso. Captaining a ship that looks like a domestic bungalow with rocket boosters, Yoko has spent over 14 years delivering packages to distant planets, stalled occasionally by the malfunctioning radio navigator that serves as her only companion.
During her time aboard the ship, Yoko has occasionally logged her musings on a reel-to-reel tape recorder and the reemergence of that recorder starts to trigger her curiosity. What’s in those packages, anyway? And why have human beings, who have access to domestic teleporters, chosen a courier to deliver items that take years to deliver, rather than fractions of a second? As she starts to peek into the boxes, Yoko gains some interest in their recipients, who shuffle through the ruins of faraway planets.
Sono makes a wry joke out of time in the film, running through every day-of-the-week title card as Yoko prepares a single cup of tea out of a busted faucet, then jumping ahead several years, and still later timestamping a banal moment down to the second. For an immortal android like Yoko, time is an arbitrary metric and unlike FedEx, users of her service can expect deliveries a couple years ahead or behind estimation. This is what counts for comedy in “The Whispering Star,” along with the crunch of a discarded beverage can underneath an old man’s shoe — his “sole” company, in both senses of the word.
In trying to make sense of an android’s point-of-view, Sono has sensibly turned repetition and routine into a narrative strategy, but the unrelieved tedium of “The Whispering Star” takes a toll. If anything, Sono’s past work has suffered from an overabundance of jokes, digressions, and crazed visual flourishes, but their near-total absence here becomes a problem of another kind. The passing of time is a running gag that winds up folded into the mundanity, but worse is Sono’s difficulty in making the connection between Yoko and humankind emotionally tangible. Not until the haunting final passage does he suggest the tragedy of civilization being scattered to the winds.
For those who can get on the pic’s somnolent wavelength, however, there are compensations, chiefly Hideo Yamamoto’s black-and-white cinematography, which draws out the stark desolation of various land- and cityscapes, until one striking burst of color alters our assumptions. High marks, too, to Takeshi Shimizu’s witty production design, particularly on a spaceship that’s like grandma’s house as jury-rigged by NASA and Radio Shack.