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Me, the robot and the others on #IFFR

Poetic post-apocalyptic drama

The most intriguing acting performance at the Rotterdam Film Festival can be seen in the moving Japanese drama of decline Sayonara (meaning 'Goodbye'). One of the two protagonists in it is not a human but an actual robot. At the same time, it irresistibly reminded me of Charlie Kaufman's brilliant stop-motion animation Anomalisa, in which all but the two main characters have exactly the same face.

For a post-apocalyptic drama is Sayonara strikingly poetic. After a nuclear disaster, Japan is evacuated, but a young woman suffering from radiation sickness waits in vain for her call because she is foreign. Yes, there is also a touch of socio-political satire in there, but what director Fukada Koji really zooms in on is the intimate relationship that grows between the sick woman and her care robot Leona, the only one who remains loyal to her in a disintegrating society.

Movie robots are usually played by a human in a robot suit, or it is a computer animation. But Leona is played by a Geminoid F, a robot developed at Osaka University with a strong humanoid appearance. In the film, she is endearing enough to be sympathised with. She blinks her eyes and can express emotions with her face. This Geminoid F previously performed in a play.

Actually, she can actually do much less than the film suggests, because behind the scenes she is controlled by a human with a laptop. Her lines are also pre-programmed.

Knowledge of people

You could call it sophisticated puppetry, but that doesn't make the character Leona any less intriguing. Her stylised features and flat voice evoke a wonderful sense of alienation that in this case fits the story perfectly. We get the sense that Leona is really coming to understand the woman entrusted to her care, and conversely, that it is a valuable friendship.

Because, of course, this is not about that nuclear disaster, but about loneliness and the realisation of impending death, something that it is questionable whether Leona can understand. The director noted, "Despite religion and science, death remains something incomprehensible to many contemporary people. I see that tragedy reflected in the android's gaze."

Loneliness and the impossibility of really knowing the people around you is also the theme of Charlie Kaufman's calmly poignant Anomalisa. A completely different film, and yet I was reminded of the robot Leona. This is due to the fact that Kaufman chose a very realistic form of stop-motion animation. The people are puppets that look about as real as the robot Leona. That gave him the opportunity to give everyone except customer service guru Michael and the girl he sees his redemption in exactly the same face and voice. The others as anonymous clones or robots, it turns out after seeing Sayonara and Anomalisa surprisingly little difference between them.

Both films can still be seen at IFFR on Saturday.

Leo Bankersen

Leo Bankersen has been writing about film since Chinatown and Night of the Living Dead. Reviewed as a freelance film journalist for the GPD for a long time. Is now, among other things, one of the regular contributors to De Filmkrant. Likes to break a lance for children's films, documentaries and films from non-Western countries. Other specialities: digital issues and film education.View Author posts

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