The Whispering Star marks an intriguing departure from filmmaker Sion Sono’s usual themes of hopelessness and hysteria. Languid, dramatically minimalist, and shot in crisp black and white, the film lacks Sono’s characteristic frenzied emotional pitch. Though its scanty narrative and creeping pace hindered my engagement with the film, The Whispering Star is a well-crafted addition to Sono’s oeuvre.
Android parcel delivery-woman Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka) drifts from planet to planet in a cramped spaceship shaped like a Japanese bungalow. Her only company is the ship’s malfunctioning navigational A.I., an antique-radio-shaped object named Mah EM. Her only customers are humans, now an endangered species in a universe dominated by robots. As her ship crawls through space, Yoko begins to wonder: what is inside all these packages she is delivering? And why do such inessential objects mean so much to the human senders and recipients?
The Whispering Star makes much of its own monotony. Yoko cleans her apartment, listens to Mah EM, and interacts very occasionally with a very few people. Scenes of Yoko making tea, dusting the kitchen, and washing her floor are intercut with title cards of the days of the week, suggesting that every day in space for her is identically banal. Her routine is occasionally enlivened when she lands on a planet to make a delivery — the only moments when Yoko comes into contact, however briefly, with anyone else.
This near-plotless narrative means that Yoko remains an enigma. As the film progresses, Yoko’s deliveries begin to change her, and she slowly grows to mirror the people with whom she interacts. Though we observe Yoko changing, we never get familiar enough with her to understand why those changes happen and what they might mean for her going forward. Yoko’s growth would be more understandable, and hence more meaningful, were she simply given more to do.
The film’s aesthetic, especially its carefully curated sound design, operates on a far more precise scale than the sensory assault of earlier Sono films like Love Exposure or Guilty of Romance. Yoko and Mah EM communicate exclusively in whispers; the score is rare and fleeting. The sounds of human living, including those made by Yoko, are almost uncomfortably prominent. Waves crashing on a beach in the foreground make no sound, but we can hear every grain of sand shaken from an old woman’s slipper. This persistent incongruity draws attention to itself, creating suspense: something is wrong, but for no evident reason. Eventually we learn that in this universe, sound above thirty decibels may be fatal to humans.
Despite the film’s ambitious themes of human memory and technological hubris, Yoko remains too much of a blank slate to provoke empathy, and the tedium of her day-to-day existence is anaesthetic. Yoko’s strange, slow journey rewards Sono fans with an opportunity to appreciate the writer-director’s range and craftsmanship, but those seeking a thematic follow-up to his yakuza bloodbath, Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, may be disappointed.