With no less than 6 films to his name, it's no secret that 2015 was a magical year for Sion Sono. So far only one of his 2015 films had eluded me, luckily I was able to catch up with The Whispering Star [Hiso Hiso Boshi] this past week. After watching the film, it's quite easy to see why this one is the hardest to find, though it's very much a problem of commercial appeal rather than intrinsic value. I feel The Whispering Star is a close contender to become my favorite Sono, which is saying a lot.
With so many films in a single year, you may suspect that Sono was just rushing from one film to the other, but you sure can't tell from the films themselves. While Sono's hand is clear in every single one of them, they're still completely unique and very different from each other. The Whispering Star is the film that combines Sono's love for genre cinema with the more arthouse-oriented experimental stretches that defined his early work. You can feel Sono's influence in every frame, at the same time it's something you haven't seen him do before.
The result is a daring and fresh take on sci-fi, but one that's quite difficult to sell. Genre fans will be taken aback by the slow pacing and lack of clear plot, arthouse fans will be tripped up by some quirkiness and obvious genre elements. Finding films to compare it with directly is tough, though when you mix up Kanji Nakajima's The Clone Returns Home with Sono's own The Land of Hope you may at least get a sense of direction.
The Whispering Star isn't what you'd call a very narrative-driven feature, even so revealing anything about the plot details feels like a major spoiler to me. Maybe it's because the film is structured like one big exploratory voyage, only sparingly revealing bits and pieces along the way, but leaving the surprises untouched feels like the right thing to do. I will say that the film touches upon the peculiarities of what makes us human, linking it with the Fukushima disaster. If you want more specific plot points you'll just have to watch the film (or read a more spoiler-heavy review).
Visually it's by far one of the most accomplished films Sono directed so far. The entire film (save one single scene) is draped in a beautiful sepia filter. It's definitely not one of the most original color schemes, but the contrast is rich, the finish is extremely polished and the lighting is superb. It makes for a stunning effect which is quite different from the more grainy, retro-look that is usually associated with sepia. Add to that some amazing camera work and strong compositions and you have a slick and polished-looking film that shows Sono has class.
The soundtrack is equally interesting, though it's the entire soundscape of the movie that leaves the biggest impression. While there's little dialogue and actual music is quite sparse, Sono has a lot of fun playing around with sound effects. From a tin can stuck underneath someone's boot to the low hum of the spaceship or the high-pitched, child-like voice of the ship's AI, there are always some stand-out sound bytes that add to the film's unique rhythm. Sono has shown he understands the power of a good soundtrack many times before, though he never quite used it to this effect.
Fronting the film is Megumi Kagurazaka, Sono's better half. She's appeared in quite a few films of him already, but never in such an attention-grabbing role. There are a few other actors around, but they rarely appear for more than a couple of shots. Sono sticks with Kagurazaka's character for most of the running time and since she has few people to talk to, it all comes down to posture and facial expressions. It's easy to see how the familiarity between director and actor helped to bring Kagurazaka's character to life, but ultimately Kagurazaka's deserves all the credit for doing such a terrific job.
There isn't much dialogue, the setting is exploratory and the pacing is deliberately slow. The only way to enjoy The Whispering Star is to invest in Sono's journey and hope for the best. If for some reason you can't get yourself past that barrier, there's really no point in watching this film. Whether Sono can deliver on his promise depends on how much you plan to take from the film. There's definitely some meat there and it's not just an exercise in style, but there's also not too much happening beyond what Sono puts on display.
If you're a fan of Sono's work, I feel quite confident in recommending The Whispering Star. It's yet another take on Sono's trademark style and while difficult to compare to his earlier films, I feel that fans shouldn't have too much trouble adapting to the film's particularities. If you're unfamiliar with Sono or you downright hated his other films, this might not be the film for you. I'm firmly in the first category though, and I feel it's one of the best things Sono has done so far. It's original, quirky, stylish and otherworldly, which is quite a feat considering Sono's track record. A tough cookie on the outside, but incredibly rich in taste and texture on the inside. Getting your hands on the film is something entirely else of course.