Sion Sono is the most interesting Japanese director currently working, by a long way. I believed that even before I watched this film. He's important, in a way almost no one manages. Even with that level of expectation, though, this film gobsmacked me.
However it did this with superhuman levels of tedium. No one else could have made this film, partly because I'm pretty sure no one else could even have imagined it. It's mind-meltingly dull. That's the point. It's portraying an existence so empty that if you were Megumi Kagurazaka, your brain would rot and you'd go insane. Kagurazaka lives on a spaceship and works for a package delivery company. She's been doing this for an unthinkably long time, but her current cargo of 82 deliveries is still estimated to take another eleven years. "A time lag of two or three years from the planned delivery date is generally forgiven."
She's doing all this on her own. She's drifting through space in a tiny metal box, with no conversation and nothing to do. Her spaceship looks like a tiny, grotty one-room apartment from the 1950s, except for the control panel and viewscreens at one end. There's a tap, a washing machine, a fridge, etc. You could walk from one end to the other in twenty seconds. She's got no one to talk to except a computer (and she doesn't talk to it)... and THIRTY MINUTES of crawling screen time will pass before we lands on a planet. She fixes a dripping tap, wipes the floor and has trouble with the screws in her cupboard hinges. All this is shot in black-and-white while anyone watching this film starts clawing at the walls. It's unbelievable. Nothing happens, over and over again. For ever. (Okay, technically it's thirty minutes, but Sion's trying to make that feel like years because he's putting us in Kagurazaka's shoes. Boy, does he succeed.)
Tiny space. The kind of grotty flat you'd give one of your kidneys not to have to stay in. Static camera. Emotionless woman doing mindless domestic activities, never complaining or showing any signs of dissatisfaction.
Incredible. I don't know what's inside Sion Sono's head, but I'd be afraid to look in there.
Then, when we evennnnnntualllllyyyyy land on a planet, that's even worse! It's an amazing artistic achievement, in boredom. No, I'm not being ironic. Here's the state of the universe:
"Humanity thus repeated its substantial disasters and monumental failures. People died off every time they did. Space is now ensconced in a quiet peace. Machines control space, where robot AI account for 80% and humans account for the other 20%. In space, humans are already regarded as a species on the brink of extinction. The pursuit of science is all but completed, but humans can still only live for up to 100 years. In space, the human population is but a vanishing candle."
Whenever Kagurazaka lands on a planet, it'll be apparently empty. Japan's an ageing, declining country, obviously, and Sono's reflecting that with his beautiful, pseudo-apocalyptic filming in what look like ghost towns. You'll again have lots of static camerawork making the scenery the most important thing on screen, as a little human figure (usually Kagurazaka) moves insignificantly through beautiful, desolate visual compositions. The end isn't just arriving. It's come and gone. We're picking through what was left afterwards. Kagurazaka's clients meet her and take their packages, which is bathetic in how simple and mundane it is. These planets get increasingly surreal (in their understated way). There's a planet that's like a homage to 1930s American cinema, another that's Brechtian (old people standing motionless by the beach) and another that's like a kami-shibai puppet show.
You can't just call this film "dull". It's transcending the word and inventing its own Dull Dimensions. Show this film to ten ordinary cinemagoers and nine of them will never speak to you again. That said, though...
It's surprisingly hard to fast-forward this film. If you try, you'll almost immediately have to stop for something you should probably watch. Maybe it's a new planet. Maybe it's some information we hadn't known before. (Sono takes his time telling us what's going on, carefully dripping out his mini-revelations one by one.) I also don't think I've ever seen anything like Sono's portrayal of space travel, which feels realistic in a way that crushes anything I'd ever seen on screen before. I'd be impressed by something as simple as the sunlight coming through the windscreen as the ship changes course.
Also, at one point Kagurazaka lifts the floor plates and we hear something that reminded me of the Dalek control room sound. Incidentally, in real life she's Sono's wife and she often acts in his films.
This film is amazing. Most cinemagoers would regard it as an instrument of torture, but it's amazing. I'm dumbfounded. I'm certainly not planning to watch it again, but it's reminded me that I need to watch more Sion Sono. My main problem with that is his penchant for making four-hour films, e.g. Love Exposure. (Mind you, I'm pretty sure that film won't be dull. It's about love, family, lust, religion and the art of upskirt photography. This is also a man who's capable of making one of the grossest, most twisted films in Japanese cinema history... and it won't even necessarily be the grossest, most twisted film he made that year. I'm thinking of 2005.) If you thought you'd seen everything, think again.