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Don’t say ‘Sayonara’ to human actors – ‘Actor’ puts Japanese twist on Western plot

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A contestant dressed as a captain Jack Sparrow poses prior to the ‘Roppongi’ Halloween’ parade in Tokyo on Oct 25. Some 2,000 people took part in the 1.7-km parade around the Roppongi shopping district. (AFP)
A contestant dressed as a captain Jack Sparrow poses prior to the ‘Roppongi’ Halloween’ parade in Tokyo on Oct 25. Some 2,000 people took part in the 1.7-km parade around the Roppongi shopping district. (AFP)

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meltdown, centering on the bond between a terminally ill woman afflicted with radiation poisoning and the slightly outdated companion droid who shares her home.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.

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.

One of those “actors are real people, too” romantic comedies, a la “Lost in Translation” or “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton,” in which a jaded showbiz type mellows after falling for a genuine down-to-earth gal, Satoko Yokohama’s “The Actor” puts a Japanese twist on a relatively common Western plot, while giving local thesp Ken Yasuda the juiciest role of either his or his onscreen persona’s career. Crafted according to local commercial customs, yet remarkably playful in its own right, the film blurs the lines between its protagonist’s best-known roles — a mix of samurai, gangsters and so forth — and the off-script personal life he’s trying to cobble together offscreen. The result proves clever enough for the Japanese market, and yet a wee bit tricky for foreigners to follow.

Though reasonably well respected for his ability to improvise in character, Takuji Kameoka (Yasuda) seems to have forgotten who he really is, spending most of his free time in a state of partial inebriation — something his agent has the uncanny ability to sense even over the phone, which tells you a thing or two about how Kameoka’s drinking habits may have affected his career to date. His is not what one would consider a glamorous life, and though perfect strangers have been known to recognize his face from the big screen, it’s usually as “that guy” rather than by his actual name. (RTRS)

Casting is everything in a part like this, and “Bare Essence of Life” director Yokohama made an inspired choice with Yasuda (not to be confused with the hulking Japanese bodybuilder who shares his name). Virtually unknown outside his home country, where he works regularly on TV as well as voice acting in Studio Ghibli films, Yasuda has the personal experience to match the part and presumably just as much to prove as his character. Yasuda also possesses a wonderfully expressive face, including an oddly shaped mouth he can (and does) contort into any number of complex emotions, the best being the almost incredulous way he finds himself falling for Azumi Murota (Kumiko Aso), the woman who tends bar in the remote town where he’s shooting.


It’s a little confusing what he’s doing there, since the film makes it sound as if auditions are drying up for Kameoka, who must resort to accepting a semi-humiliating stage role, and yet, he’s almost never not working — constantly acting for one director or another in a series of cameos by better-known Japanese stars. During those rare moments of down time, he’s either trying to get a part (like that of a soldier in the ambitious new epic from a respected Spanish auteur, whose Venice-selected “Remo El Cojo” we see cheekily reenacted with Kameoka in the lead) or boozing it up after a day of shooting (paired with an inexperienced young Filipino actress in one scene, he insists on drinking real alcohol on set, with bemusing results).

Still, there’s something not entirely clear about the chronology in Yokohama’s script, which she adapted herself from a novel by one of Japan’s most celebrated writers, Akito Inui, a five-time bridesmaid for the country’s Akutagawa Prize. In her hands, the material doesn’t feel especially literary, though that’s a plus, with Kameoka’s existential crisis handled with charm (and a mind-boggling mix of musical styles, including a folk-disco throwback in the style of vintage television’s “Three’s Company” theme), rather than the sort of “Leaving Las Vegas”-like angst a more statue-grabby actor might have brought to the part. (RTRS)

By Peter Debruge