Director Koji Fukada explores nuanced human-robot divide in ‘Sayonara’


Special To The Japan Times

Whether it’s the anthropomorphic cyborg cat Doraemon, Sony’s artificially intelligent canine pet Aibo or even baby harp seals created to assist dementia patients, robots have long been recognized in Japan as capable of providing therapeutic and emotional assistance for their human owners.

Director Koji Fukada’s latest film, “Sayonara”, approaches the cyborg-human divide with a similarly nuanced dynamic. Based on playwright Oriza Hirata theatrical production “Sayonara II”, the film stars the android Geminoid F, created by Osaka University’s robotics expert professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, alongside human actress Bryerly Long.

The film’s melancholic narrative situates the pair in a desolate part of rural Japan post-nuclear disaster (albeit eschewing any direct references to 2011’s Fukushima incident). Terminally ill with radiation sickness, Long’s character, Tanya, resigns herself to living out her remaining days alongside Geminoid F, with the two reciting the poems of Arthur Rimbaud and Carl Busse to each other as they are faced with increasing solitude.

America-born Long, who speaks fluent Japanese, also acted in the stage version after joining Hirata’s Seinendan Theater Company upon graduating from college. “(Before acting with androids) I had always just viewed robots as something like a talking, moving box,” Long says. “I didn’t grow up watching any sci-fi or playing computer games, I wasn’t tuned into technology as a kid — I didn’t even have a TV.”

Although Long herself had no preconceptions about working with robots, the same has not always been true of her audiences. “When we were touring the play in Europe or the U.S., there would always be a part of the audience that has an immediate negative reaction based on the idea that they think we’re trying to replace humans with robots,” she recalls. “They think of theater as something that is about conveying human emotions — which robots are intrinsically unable to do — but the irony is that we have no way of knowing that anyway. We can analyze neural activity and so on, but when I’m watching a play I have no idea whether the actor is really feeling human emotion — it’s all about perception rather than some underlying truth.”

Whereas the play is liable to turn into a Turing test of sorts, in which the audience is naturally inclined to judge the performance of a robot against that of a human actor, the cinematic medium has had its own challenges when it comes to android involvement.

Computer-animated films such as “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” (2001) and “The Polar Express” (2004) were widely criticized for inducing a feeling of revulsion — a response to the “uncanny valley” (a term originating from Japan, coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970), which states that robots will produce a feeling of uncanniness at a point when their form falls between “barely human” and “fully human.”

On an ideological level, the role of cyborgs in cinematic history has also frequently been a subject for debate. Whether it’s the fetishization of the Aryan ubermensch male body in the “Terminator” series (author Joel Dinerstein terms it a “posthuman Adam” in the way that it perpetuates the mythic triumphalism of white, Western progress) or the objectifying feminization of technology in recent pictures such as “Ex Machina” (2015), the depiction of new technologies continues to act as a Rorschach test for the collective concerns of successive generations.

Donna Haraway, who authored “A Cyborg Manifesto” in 1983, acknowledged the necessity for a “popular, playful and serious imaginative relation to technoscience that propounds human limits and dislocations — the fact that we die, rather than Faustian evasions.”

“Sayonara” does just that, presenting technological advances as a largely inconsequential monument within a wider context of man-made apocalypse and mortality: Geminoid F ultimately comes across as vulnerable and isolated as her fleshy counterpart.

Long, in turn, has found that the experience of acting alongside an android has made her consider the broader implications of robots’ participation in future society.

“How we interact with robots influences how we interact with humans in certain ways,” she says. “How we interact with our friends is already different from how we interact with someone whom we pay for a service — robots take that to the next level. How do we react to something without any emotions, when we don’t care how they’re affected by our behavior? There’s a line in the film when Geminoid F says, ‘Some people destroy me because it makes them feel better’ — it becomes a very gray zone in terms of what we could call human rights or ethics.”

Long laughs off my suggestions she might feel slighted that it’s her co-star Geminoid F that was up for the best actress award at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, instead saying that she’s learned a lot from the process.

“We had a dinner with professor Ishiguro after the premiere of the film and he said that my acting had improved a lot, so it’s nice to have evolved with the robots,” she says. “I think in any society our interactions and even emotions are often just patterned responses to given situations. When I was struggling to fit into the theater company and Japanese society when I first moved here, professor Ishiguro told me, ‘You can learn these things and adapt, the same way that we do with the robots, and then you’ll fit in. Whether it’s humans or robots, it’s about recognizing these patterns.’ “