Tokyo 2015: Of Death And Robots, A Conversation With SAYONARA Director Fukada Koji And Actress Bryerly Long

Writer; London/Tokyo (@seven_cinemas)
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Tokyo 2015: Of Death And Robots, A Conversation With SAYONARA Director Fukada Koji And Actress Bryerly Long
Starting life as a short stage play back in 2010, Sayonara made headlines internationally thanks to its novel use of an 'android' cast member. The artificial actor sat opposite human counterpart Bryerly Long as the two engaged in an intimate discussion on the themes of life and death. It wasn't long before Fukada Koji, award-winning director of Hospitalité and Au Revoir l'Eté, grabbed ahold of the project in order to turn it into a feature film.

The finished work is all set to premiere in Tokyo International Film Festival's Competition section this week. Before the festival kicked off, I was lucky enough to sit down with the film's director and lead actress to talk about its production.

Q. How was the transition from stage to screen?

Fukada Koji (FK): The first time I saw this play was in 2010. It left a very strong impression on me, of course it's new, a human and android talking to each other, but also what was more impressive was that the human who is dying is talking to an android that doesn't know about death. I think that really makes us think about death. I've wanted to use this motif that people are meant to die for some time, I wanted to talk about it and really show it on the screen. This theme was really perfect for what I wanted to do. As soon as I saw the play I got in touch with Oriza Hirata, the author, and asked him for the rights to adapt.

Bryerly Long (BL): The premiere was in 2010 and then we toured for, it's actually still touring every now and again, but we performed for two years quite consistently around Europe, North America, Australia and all over Japan, in English, French German and Japanese. The play is quite short, it was originally only about 15 minutes and then it was made into a longer 30-minute piece, but it was very experimental; the first project with an android robot and a human on stage together. 

What Oriza Hirata was doing was to make that distinction between human and android very vague so that the audience wonders, "who is the robot and who is the person in this play, are they actually both actors or are they both robots?" That was also one of the reasons for casting me, a foreigner acting in Japanese, because seeing a blonde girl on stage, obviously the audience might think, "Oh, perhaps she's the robot". Also the acting style was quite stylized in the sense that it's meant to mirror the robot so the speech is perfectly timed. When the robot speaks I have to adjust my timing so that if I speak a bit later the robot's line will be on top of my line so in that sense it's somewhat robotic. 

The challenge of the play was to have it not be too robotic but not too naturalistic either. In the case of the film, I discussed with Fukada at the beginning, should I have that slightly robotic style of acting that is in the play? Obviously the character in the film is someone who has grown up with a robot, so there are places where I think the emotion is slightly subdued because I'm playing this character who grew up with her parents but also with this robot. However, with a two hour film if you do that same style it's not going to keep the audiences attention and there are obviously scenes where I am interacting with other people so there's much more human emotion in the film that isn't in the play so much.

Q. Were you influenced by the Fukushima disaster and evacuation?

FK: Yes, I was. Nuclear power plants did not influence the play that I based this film on. It had nothing to do with Fukushima. However, when I saw the original play it was very short, 15 minutes, but it's filled with a very strong smell of death. It's like a momento mori, which, depicted in various forms, has always been a theme of the arts, in both the west and the east. I wanted to represent this in film. Also, because I wanted to make the short play into a much longer film I needed to have the set up of the world that these protagonists are in and I wanted to have that world heading towards death. 

When I think of the present Japan, what would be the situation that is realistically heading in that direction, towards death? What's most probable is the explosion of the nuclear power plant. So I think my movie is not about the political message, not about anti-nuclear power. But when you think about the world or Japan being ruined, the possibility that comes first in my mind is nuclear power. That itself could be a criticism of society and also the nuclear power plant disaster has never been featured in commercial feature films of Japan so by itself it becomes a criticism of Japan's current situation.

Q. Bryerly, did you feel that you were able to draw on your experience of living in Japan during the period of disaster (3/11, Fukushima)?

BL: Well I remained in Tokyo throughout the period post 3/11 because I was playing a role in a play and if I had dropped out it would have impacted the whole theatre company. I actually had a strong sense of togetherness when I was here because I was going to rehearsals everyday I was in the theatre everyday with my colleagues and I had colleagues from Tohoku who had lost family members, or couldn't get in touch with there family members straight away and they were in a much tougher situation than I was so it was a really bonding experience I think, working with the company through those difficult times and the play was sold out throughout the while period.

For me, I drew some of the sense of isolation that you might see from when I was rehearsing this play. I had just moved to Japan and so it was the transition from being a student and suddenly working in a professional environment and also being cast right away in a high profile play at the theatre company and working with really professional colleagues. So maybe I felt slightly isolated at that point and I drew on that when I was first rehearsing for the play. 

The other thing I drew on was when I lived in Bosnia as a kid and my parents worked a lot in the Yugoslavian theatre of war. My mother has worked a lot on migration issues with refugees etc. so I drew a lot on those stories of dislocation and what that means to be uprooted. I had some uprootedness [sic] in my childhood, moving from Vietnam to Bosnia to France, sort of interesting places with quite extreme situations

Q. You talked about this theme of memento mori and wanting to include images of death would you like to address why you wanted to include that in the film?

FK: Well, simply, I just wanted to have the time to share with the audience that event of death. I think it's very important to share that because human beings are the only living creatures on earth that can recognize their own death, and I felt it was very important to show that. This is because of our intellect, but because of that intellect we have a fear for death. 

That's why I think thousands of people over thousands of years be it, artists, musicians, or writers, they have been dealing with the motif of death. I feel that those things have the function of rehearsing death. As human beings we cannot escape death and so depicting it in a way gives us the opportunity to rehearse that. And now that we are in the modern world death is always there but seems to be more outcast, more marginalized, we don't see death in our daily life we don't witness it. We don't feel death and that's why it's more important that art deals with momento mori. It's the function of art to remind people of death.

In Japan before the Edo era there was a series of drawings called Kyusouzu where the death of prostitutes were depicted in a series of nine drawings, from death until when the body decays and becomes bone. That influenced also me.

Q. Bryerly, I read somewhere that you didn't like working with the robot, that you found it isolating, first of all is this true? And was it different filming in this natural rustic setting with the camera crew as opposed to being literally isolated on a dark stage?

BL: Well, I did like working with the robot! Also I've developed a very good relationship with the robot technicians so often people ask, "Do you have a strong bond with the robot?" More than that I have a strong bond with the people working around the robot. I've toured around the world with them so it was very comforting to be working with them on set because this is my first main role on a film and also for the robot technicians it was there first experience working on a feature film.

Q. How much did you think about world building for the future depicted on this film? Of course there's the android, but did you think a lot about crafting a future or was it more a device to have the android in the film?

FK: What we were talking about with the staff is that it's set in the future but it's not like the Blade Runner style near-future, it's more like twenty years from now. So it's really a continuation of what we're doing now. When you think about Japan twenty years ago, maybe scenery-wise it's not that different but for example, people are using iPhones and more Internet now so those details are a bit different. We wanted to show that in around twenty years from now it might be something like that.

Q. Of course the greatest sci-fi robot films aren't really about robots, they are about understanding what it means to be human. The robots often want to be human, they themselves are trying to understand the human condition, but with your android, Geminoid F, I felt she was more a sounding board for Tania's character.

FK: The setup, as I said, is the near future but it's only around twenty years from now, so it's a continuation of what we are doing right now. The android is something of a continuation of the home and electronic appliances.

The setup is that Leona, the android in this film, is learning emotions from Tania so yes; the android develops like a part of Tania. It's the same with the original play, I think that Dr. Nishimura, who invented the android, maybe he shares the same feeling, that what's important is not the android itself but having the android perform together with a human being. They act together, not to learn about the android itself but it's the process to learn what human beings are all about so we don't want to just talk about the android but we wanted to show how the android communicates with human beings.

Q. There was another interesting idea in the film that the Japanese are leaving Japan but it is a foreigner who is stuck there.

FK: Well, the inspiration came from the play. However, in the original play Bryerly was doing the character but there is no explanation as to why she's there, why a foreigner is in Japan and talking to an android, I wanted to explain that. 3/11 is a really huge disaster that could only happen once in a hundred years in that there was not only a huge tsunami but also an earthquake and then the explosion of the power plant. 

These three huge things happened in a space of just three days and then later people started to say 'Come on, Japan!' or 'Bond!' These were the key words and then people started to move towards recovery. I had a huge concern that there is a pressure to be in harmony and to unite and I started to fear that those keys words ignored non-Japanese people like immigrants and migrants or the people who are not Japanese. I felt that these people were kind of forgotten and that concern is also reflected in this film.

As for the idea of sci-fi, the explosion of the nuclear power plant is not really the future; it's a current issue. That set up is not very futuristic it is not sci-fi. And also, right now, Japan is very exclusive towards immigrants. So this set up of Tania living in Japan is more science fiction like, it's less realistic. The nuclear power plant is the more realistic part; it's not science fiction for me.

You covered the idea of understanding foreigners in your film HOSPITALITE, so thanks for looking out for us!

KF: I just want to say, my film talks about a nuclear power plant and the explosion of it right now, this possible crisis is the background so I think its very important and meaningful that this film's world premier is in Tokyo. I would love to have the prime minister of Japan watch this film so I'd like to send an invitation to him.

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