In a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has become endangered, an android traveling in her spaceship is tasked to visit various planets to deliver memories in packages to the smattering of humans still surviving. This is The Whispering Star, the latest feature film from the hyperactive imagination of TIFF regular Sono Sion. Although the Japanese maverick created the film’s script and storyboard a quarter-century ago, he revised it to include key elements of the 2011 Tohoku calamity so as to underscore the consequences of human frailties. Unlike the jazz that usually characterizes a Sono Sion film, this one is quiet, reflective and beautifully attuned to the Japanese aesthetic of transience in nature. This is also the first film Sono has directed under his new production company. This email interview was conducted following the world premiere of The Whispering Star at TIFF, where both Sono and his wife, lead actress Kagurazaka Megumi, attended.
Brandon Wee: You created the script and storyboard for The Whispering Star in 1990. What differences are there between those versions and the finished film?
Sono Sion: The most definitive factor was that the nuclear power plant exploded and Fukushima became Chernobyl. In 1990, we went location scouting all over the world looking for a place in ruins, but ironically it was a place so close to home that forced me to reckon with the script of The Whispering Star.
BW: The 2011 Tohoku calamity has affected your work as an artist. In your adaptation of Himizu (2011) you changed the source material to incorporate the disaster. In Land of Hope (2012) and The Whispering Star, it is an intimate part of both stories. What has moved you to feature this historical event so often in your films?
SS: I felt strongly that a nuclear power plant explosion is an accident that cannot and should not be ignored; that as an artist, to incorporate it into a film is not only necessary, but also imperative.
BW: The Whispering Star’s aesthetic is classically Japanese. Central to this story is the theme of transience in nature. Yet, I also sense a pessimistic view of humanity. Since writing the story 25 years ago, what are your impressions of humankind during this quarter-century?
SS: Although I didn’t change much of the original script, when making the film I was surprised I didn’t share the pessimistic view of the world I had 25 years ago—even after the demise of Fukushima’s nuclear power plant, which I had a difficulty grasping. How do I go about portraying my present view without changing the script? Considering the end result, I guess my original script was somewhat solid and uncompromising in that the negativity could not be masked or transformed.
BW: A crucial scene involves the android walking through a series of corridors filled with human silhouettes that we observe on rows of shoji. It’s a poignant sequence of astonishing beauty. What is the significance of this imagery?
SS: I thought about how when you look back on your life, you realize it has flashed by you; that there is a certain intangibility and fragility to our lives, like shadowgraphs. The abrupt dissipation and loss of lives brought on by the great earthquake further reiterates the fleeting, shadow-like nature of our existence. That sequence is not only designed to commemorate those lives lost, but also to highlight the ephemerality of humans—even those living seemingly separate, unrelated lives—by portraying people as they are: as shadows projected against the shoji.
BW: The Whispering Star is your sixth film in six years that TIFF has screened. How do you feel Canadian audiences have related to your films?
SS: I can’t really say I have grasped the notion of “Canadian audiences” yet, but because I am warmly received at both the Fantasia International Film Festival (in Montreal) and the Toronto International Film Festival—not to mention the fact that my English teacher is a Canadian, I definitely feel an affinity towards Canada and its people.
BW: Congratulations on establishing your production company. You’re a very busy filmmaker. What future plans do you have for your new outfit?
SS: My intension is to completely separate so-called blockbuster commercial films from films I personally feel passionate about making. I wish to devote myself to making and establishing independent films by dissociating one from the other.
Translated by Ruri Kumazawa and Taku Kato.