A Dystopia Called Fukushima? Sono Sion’s The Whispering Star and the Postmodern Apocalypse

Theresa Deichert

a figure walking down a dark corridor with projections on either side i Fig. 12: Yōko (Kagurazaka Megumi) on Planet #62678. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.


On 11 March 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck the northeastern coast of Japan and turned it into a swathe of destruction. The natural disasters in a dramatically entangled catenation with human failure caused the collapse of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s cooling system. This resulted in a series of hydrogen explosions that catapulted tons of radioactive particles into the air and contaminated the surrounding environment.2 In response, the Japanese government established a twenty-kilometre radius exclusion zone around the Fukushima power plant on 12 March 2011, which they euphemistically called ‘difficult-to-return zone’ (Kikan konnan kuiki 帰還困難区域). This led to the hurried evacuation of more than 160,000 residents of local towns such as Namie, Tomioka and Ōkuma of Fukushima prefecture.3In the aftermath of March 2011, they turned into deserted ghost towns with the tarmac of the streets cracked open, furniture and debris spilt out of empty homes and neglected shops, frozen in time.4 The landscape between these towns was dominated by cleanup workers dressed in white Tyvek coveralls, gloves and masks. Moving along like extraterrestrial beings, ant-like strewn across the plains, they tirelessly dusted houses of radioactive particles and removed the topsoil of fields and gardens. The workers filled mulch and dirt into large black tare bags that they transported away to pile up to giant doomful mountains visible from a distance. Above it all, hung the invisible threat of radiation.

At the time of writing this book chapter, more than a decade has passed since March 2011. Despite remaining contaminated and sparsely populated, reconstruction efforts have returned most of the area to apparent normalcy. However, in the immediate aftermath, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its exclusion zone seemed to foreshadow a post-apocalyptic vision of the future.5 Around the nuclear power plant, a toxic ecology without people manifested.6 The nuclear disaster, where chain reactions made geological forces collide with human technology and man-made failure to contain them, brought anew to the forefront the interconnectedness of humans, their technology and culture with nature.7 It revealed the arbitrariness of the boundaries between these realms.8 The exclusion zone’s conditions, on the surface uncannily similar to the post-apocalyptic dystopias of science fiction narratives, also seemed to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction. This sense was heightened by a veil of secrecy, as the Japanese government attempted to cover up the graveness of the disaster through media censorship and the withholding of information about contamination from the public.9 With such conditions, the Fukushima disaster and its aftermath had an impact, on the apocalyptic science fiction imagination in Japan and abroad.10

Acknowledging the importance to attend to such narratives to unravel the societal and political dynamics of the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, this chapter focuses on the analysis of the 2015 science fiction film The Whispering Star (hiso hiso boshi  ひそひそ星; Star hereafter) by Japanese film director Sono Sion. 11 An adaptation and realization of a script that Sono originally conceived of in 1991, the film, shot in sepia-tinted monochrome, takes us to an undefined time in the future.12 Humanity has been reduced to a handful, silently fading away on the eve of their extinction brought on by themselves through human failure and the irredeemable repetition of man-made disasters. The story follows a female android named Suzuki Yōko (Kagurazaka Megumi) who works for an intergalactic delivery service. As Yōko, solely accompanied by her childish board computer 6-7 M.I.M.E. (Ikeda Yuto), travels from planet to planet on her spaceship through the universe, she delivers parcels that contain ominous, seemingly worthless, objects to the last remaining humans. Rather than fabricating the landscapes of these planets, Sono uniquely utilized the real but seemingly post-apocalyptic landscapes in and around the ghost towns of Namie, Futaba and Ōkuma as a backdrop to Yōko’s voyages. Instead of casting professional actors, Sono collaborated with disaster evacuees to embody the planets’ last human residents.

Together with writing and producing the film through his own production company, Sono undertook a crossover into contemporary art practices. In conceiving Star as part of a body of installation and performative works, the director hoped to bring out further messages which he could not fully address in the film.13 In June 2015, in the summer before its official cinematic release, segments of Star were put on display in a small exhibition curated by the Japanese artist collective Chim↑Pom at their artist-run gallery Garter in Tokyo’s Kōenji district. The following year, Sono exhibited several installation works that further rounded out his vision for the film from the 1990s to today in the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Watari-Um) in Tokyo. Thus, while Star is the focus of this chapter, it considers the film as integral to a series of works drawing on it to contextualize and deepen the analysis of the film.

Within the field of post-3/11 cultural production, Sono’s Star as a body of work stands out as unique in its combination of a post-apocalyptic cinematic film with a science fiction-inspired immersive art installation. While the exclusion zone’s appearance as a landscape of post-apocalyptic science fiction narratives stirred many Japanese authors such as Kawakami Hiromi, Tawada Yōko, Genyū Sōkyū and Tsushima Yūko to write dystopian fiction inspired by the disaster there are only a few Japanese feature films that present science fiction scenarios inspired by 3/11.14 Examples are Sayonara (さようなら, 2015) by Fukada Kôji, Jû-nen: Ten Years Japan (十年 Ten Years Japan , 2018) consisting of five short films directed by Fujimura Akiyo, Hayakawa Chie, Ishikawa Kei, Kinoshita Yusuke and Tsuno Megumi and Ahum (Aun 阿吽, 2018) by Kajino Yu. Furthermore, while installation art has been a reoccurring genre among artists dealing with the nuclear disaster, the works of Kyun-Chome, Dokuyama Bontaro and Chim↑Pom are just some examples, Sono is the only film maker-come-artist in Japan who combines an installation with a cinema science fiction film.15 Outside Japan, however, there are a few examples of artists who encountered Fukushima-related subject matter through films with science fiction aesthetics. These are the British artist duo The Otolith Group’s The Radiant (2012), Untitled: Human Mask (2014) by French artist Pierre Huyghe and the two-screen video installation El Fin del Mundo (2012) by South Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho.

Science Fiction as a Window to the Past and the Present

According to the literary studies scholar Fredric Jameson, rather than offering revelations about the future, science fiction is especially productive in making us aware of the present. Due to what Jameson identifies as the effects of our period of late capitalism, such as the loss of real historicity due to the construction of a historical past and the all-pervading images of mass culture, the present in its immediacy otherwise remains unavailable for us to fully comprehend.16 In his book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1989), Jameson dates the emergence of late capitalism to the 1950s concomitant to postmodernism. Commonly postmodernity describes the historical period from around the late 1950s to the present, whereas postmodernism is constituted by cultural critique and related to themes in culture such as art, philosophy, literature and theory. While Jameson explicitly does not engage with the legitimacy of postmodernism itself, he sees late capitalism as pervading contemporary condition of inevitable multi-national capitalism, which penetrates both cultural and economic structures. Thus for him, postmodernism is not referring to style but a concept that periodizes, as he identifies popular culture as shaping the collective consciousness of its time.17 In contrast to the inventiveness and orientation towards the new of modernism, Jameson sees the cultural products of postmodernism as defined by a loss of historicity, a loss of a real sense of past, present and future, and a replacement of real style with imitations of style or what he terms pastiche.18 As the postmodern subject is defined by popular culture, without being able to orient itself towards history—grasping the past, present and future of its life experience and psyche as a unity—it thus experiences a loss of identity. With its origins in the 1990s, coinciding with the emergence of Jameson’s theory of postmodernism, Star seems to employ some of these features of postmodernism. However, this chapter argues that Sōno’s update of Star as a science fiction narrative to reflect on post-3/11 Japan translates the film’s representations of ahistoricity, pastiche and loss of identity as constituting an inherent critique and a warning about the post-disaster conditions of Japan.

Drawing from the science fiction theorist Darko Suvin’s influential concept of cognitive estrangement, Jameson explains that science fiction functions not to provide us with visions of the future, but to ‘defamiliarize and restructure our experience of the present’.19 Based on these theoretical assertions, this chapter argues that science fiction narratives such as that of Sono’s Star can, with stylistic devices such as estrangement, serve to open up avenues for criticality from which to reflect contemporary social and political issues of the post-disaster environment. Additionally, such narratives may foster ecological awareness by thinking through and projecting our present conditions into a future of human deterioration and environmental collapse.

How does Sono depict the post-apocalyptic future environment and beings of Star? Is he successful in addressing ecological matters of concern by way of integrating the real inhabitants and landscapes of Fukushima? To attend to these questions the analysis identifies and explores the film’s principal themes: the conditions of the post-apocalypse and human disillusionment with science and technology, time and memory, and the non-human embodied by the ghost-like appearance of the disaster victims and the android Yōko.20 What do these depictions reveal about the social, political and cultural conditions of contemporary Japanese society? Does the film contain any criticality or political traction in reflecting on them? Regarding the film as concomitant of a network of works that Sono conceived of at two moments in time, twenty-five years apart, how do the works interrelate and how do they extend the message and intent of the film? Mobilizing parts of Jameson’s postmodern cultural critique the analysis explores, how Sono unravels a continuity of the postmodern conditions of a loss of history and identity. In the case of Japan, these conditions originated with the country’s defeat in the Second World War and were aggravated by the collapse of the unmitigated post-war economic upturn in the late 1980s, which saw Japanese society enter into decades of economic stagnation.21 As such, the chapter is a contribution to research into post-3/11 artistic practices.22

After the disaster, a plethora of film documentaries was released.23 These dealt with various topics, such as the exploration of the disaster’s aftermath in the local communities, recovery and reconstruction, but also with the radioactive contamination and its effects, especially on mothers and children. In comparison, there were rather few responses through fiction films. Scholar of Japanese literature Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, moreover, points out that these mostly focused on personal drama associated with the loss of the land of one’s ancestors.24 Just as within the multitude of contemporary artworks conceived of in response to the disaster, many of which focused on practices of archiving, community engagement and regional revitalization, films that involved an obvious critique of political or societal post-disaster issues were few and far between.25 Sono was one of the first to openly deal with the Fukushima disaster in his films Himizu (ヒミズ, 2011) and Land of Hope (Kibō no Kuni 希望の国, 2012). In Himizu, filmed in the filmmaker’s usual style full of sex and violence, Sono resorted to using the ravaged post-disaster landscape as a reflection of the protagonist’s psychological turmoil.26 Land of Hope’s fiction went a step further in engaging with the disaster by bringing into focus the arbitrariness of the established borders of an exclusion zone and the elusiveness of radioactive contamination.27 As such, elements of the film dabbled into a cautious critique of the Japanese government’s handling of the nuclear disaster.28 In contrast, Sono’s incorporation of the Fukushima landscape in Star, a film unusually quiet and slow-paced for the director, is a lot more allegorical.

After Fukushima – Star’s Post-Apocalyptic Premise

Star begins with a series of scenes in which we see snippets of the film’s protagonist, android Suzuki Yōko, performing a simple household activity stretched out over several days. As she is making a cup of tea, she moves through what looks like a domestic living space (Fig. 1). However, it soon turns out to be the antiquated interior of a spaceship that from the outside looks like a traditional Japanese house complete with a little shrine attached to the back. It is not until ten minutes into the film that these quiet scenes are intercut with some text inserts unexcitedly informing the viewer of the post-apocalyptic setting in which they have been transported. What we learn about this future world is ambiguous. Implicit in this tranquil start seems to be Sono’s appeal to the viewer to buckle up for a narrative scarce of major plot expositions, to suspend disbelief and to read between the lines. In this sense, this first section of the work analysis is dedicated to disentangling the little information given about the conditions of the post-apocalyptic universe in which Star’s story takes place. To do so will illustrate the film’s inherent mirroring of social and political conditions of the post-3/11 Japanese society and their interweavement with the Japan of the early 1990s, the time of Sono’s conception of the original script.

black and white interior of a spaceship. Film still from The Whispering Star
Fig. 1: Yōko (Kagurazaka Megumi) inside of her spaceship. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.

The text on screen begins by informing us that ‘[h]umanity thus repeated their substantial disasters and monumental failures’ and ‘[p]eople died off every time they did’. Without explicitly mentioning it, this allows for the assumption that the film’s setting is a post-apocalyptic one, in which the amassing of a multitude of man-made disasters has led to some kind of apocalyptic cataclysm. The allusion to disasters and failures in the plural deliberately conjures up the multiple horrors of the current age of the Anthropocene. It is an accumulative apocalypse graven of ecological collapse, species extinction, global warming, overpopulation and (nuclear) wars.

Together with the following line of the film’s introductory text, which informs us that ‘[s]pace is now ensconced in a quiet peace’, Star’s post-apocalyptic premise seems to mirror what the sociologist Krishan Kumar, at the end of the twentieth century, identified as slow and uncertain apocalypse of the postmodern period. According to Kumar ‘the postmodern apocalypse comes not with a bang but a whimper […] a version of the apocalypse that dwells obsessively on the end, without any expectation of a new beginning’.29 In contrast to the Christian notion of apocalypse as cleansing turnover, Kumar’s contemporary secular apocalypse arrives without hope or sense of the future.30 Kumar, citing political scientist Francis Fukuyama, further notes that humanity will live out its final years quietly in ‘centuries of boredom’.31 Writing at the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama in his influential essay ‘The End of History?’ (1989) prophesized the closure of history, thus mirroring the loss of history warned of by Jameson. While events would still occur, at this moment, Fukuyama saw liberal democracy as establishing itself as ideological monopoly without contestation.32 And really, nothing much happens in Star. The viewer’s patience is tested with long static shots of Yōko’s surroundings and her ordinary activities constituted by the unremitting rotation of her deliveries with her pottering aboard the spaceship. In the all-encompassing renunciation of spectacle in Star’s universe is implicit a pervading sense of ennui and emptiness.

Just as Jameson, both Kumar and Fukuyama wrote at the end of the twentieth century in the late 1980s and early 90s. While Fukuyama has recently detracted his theory, their writing might be pertinent to how Star’s universe is depicted, as it is contemporaneous to Sono’s development of the film’s 555-page storyboard of 1991.33 Realized twenty-five years later, Star ultimately merges the aftermaths of two destabilizing, arguably apocalyptic, moments of Japanese society.34 Keeping in mind Jameson’s argument for science fiction narratives’ function to make us reflect on our present through seeing it as some future world’s past, this superimposition of two presents reworked as one in Star’s future universe is underpinned by its narrative function of cognitive estrangement. Suvin identified cognitive estrangement as an integral part of science fiction and defined it as ‘dynamic transformation … of the author’s environment’, which is ‘not only reflecting of but reflecting on reality’.35 Thus, Star’s script mirrors the period in which it was first written, which was dominated by the collapse of unmitigated economic success and security of Japanese post-war society through the burst of the bubble economy and sense of the emptiness it left behind in the 1990s.36 As mentioned, Jameson identifies this as the time of postmodernism or late capitalism, a condition of loss of history and thus of individual identity.37 As the text insert informs us further, in Star’s universe ‘[m]achines control space, where robot A.I. account for 80%, and humans account for the other 20%’. While humans are almost extinct ‘[t]he pursuit of science is all but completed’. This is indicative of another moment in time on which Star reflects: the event and aftermath of the nuclear disaster from 2011 to the mid-2010s. This being the time when Sono updated and turned the script into film, it highlights the period’s realization of the fallibility of science and technology, as well as the structural weaknesses of the political system and the social inequality within Japanese society.

Star’s post-apocalyptic universe, arising out of man-made disasters, is revealed as deeply dystopian. The utopian vision of progress through (nuclear) technology is turned on its head and revealed as a nightmare through which humanity has nearly eliminated itself.38 Instead of reaping the fruits of scientific advancement and technologically engineered immortality, human life expectancy is only a hundred years and humanity’s technological forays turned on us. In Star, the Earth must have been rendered uninhabitable. Humans are dispersed across the universe, silently and inertly waiting, bar any autarky, kept alive only by the machines that rule them. In post-war Japan, the American occupation in association with the Japanese government worked to reframe the use of nuclear fission as mass destruction and propagated it as a way to achieve ‘clean and safe’ energy production needed for economic resurgence.39 With its post-apocalyptic scenario, Star thus reflects on the post-disaster reality and its revelation of this energy promise as a myth. Moreover, the film picks up on the fragmentation of Japan’s post-disaster society into those affected, who lost their communities and are isolated by their stigmatization as disaster victims, thus losing their pre-disaster identities to their status as victims and evacuees, and those ready to forget and move on.

Machines are in power, and androids move freely between planets by spaceship, while humans —mirroring Jameson’s characterisation of the postmodern subject —remain immobile and have lost their ability or desire to actively think and pursue knowledge. The viewer learns this much. However, remarkably absent is any indication of what sort of dominant political system machines use to govern this universe. Who produces the Yōkos and who sets up their delivery service? This absence of explanation about a post-apocalyptic form of governance might be all the more telling, as embedded in it is a suggested failure of the political systems devised by humans. Instead of fleshing out this post-apocalyptic framework of Star’s narrative though, as the following section will show, Sono drifts with Star’s story into a poetic exploration of human emotion substantiated by android Yōko’s exposure to them and development of feelings of her own. The landscape of Fukushima, although turned into a post-apocalyptic dystopian space, turns primarily into a backdrop for the android’s development into an empathetic sentient being, a plot development steeped in sentimentality often verging on pathos.

Encountering ‘The Zone’

Let us turn to the moment when Yōko enters into the Fukushima exclusion zone, presented to us in the guise of a foreign planet, for the first time. As the spaceship approaches for landing, the iconic silhouettes of Fukushima’s tsunami-ravaged landscape come into view through the windows of the spaceship’s cockpit (Fig. 2). In the landscape, the floorplans of former houses overgrown by tall weeds are outlined by concrete stubs that once were walls. A ship oddly perched on land is visible in the distance. As the door of the spaceship opens and Yōko exists to deliver one of her packages, more ruins and debris come into sight. To the viewer, these vistas must be very familiar as they have become so widely known through their dissemination across social media platforms and news outlets. At the same time, the landscape is rendered strange through its presentation as the post-apocalyptic environment of another planet in the future. This is where the inherent tension of cognitive estrangement, as well as the success of Star as science fiction, become apparent.

View through the windows of the spaceship’s cockpit. Film still from The Whispering Star
Fig. 2: View through the windows of the spaceship’s cockpit. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.

Sono himself questions whether his film belongs to the genre of science fiction, as for him, it is neither science nor fiction, but rather a film about the past, the future and the present.40 However, as we have seen from Jameson’s argument science fiction too unravels the present. Moreover, with the exception of the presence of an android, science is at least distinguished by the remarkable absence of scientific advancements in Star’s future universe. Star’s functioning according to the parameters of science fiction is also apparent through its congruence with the aforementioned inherent tension of cognitive estrangement to defamiliarize us from reality. There is a dichotomy latent in the concept of cognitive estrangement, as to be estranged presupposes a need for a cognitive link felt prior.41 The setting of Star’s planets is recognizable as the ravaged ecologies of the Fukushima landscape, while through its rendering as future dystopia it appears strangely different. According to Suvin, this difference is evoked by the inclusion of a ‘novum of cognitive innovation […] a totalizing phenomenon of relationship deviating from the author’s and implied reader’s norm of reality’.42 Such a novum can be constituted by a new invention or, as is the case with Star, the setting and an agent or character, such as the android Yōko. The novum, moreover, must be feasible as a conclusion to our current state of science.43 In this context, Yōko can be seen as an offshoot of twenty-first-century artificial intelligence.

As Yōko walks along a cracked overgrown road carrying her package towards its recipient, the camera’s pan shot traces and slowly reveals more of the scenery. Yōko advances towards the viewer framed by a row of skinny withered trees on the left and power masts with their tendon-like cables on the right. The only audible sound is that of her footsteps and a repetitive metallic clonk. Together with the monochrome of the film, Yōko’s entrance into the Fukushima landscape seems to reference Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science fiction film Stalker.44 Tarkovsky’s film follows three men, a writer and a professor led by their guide named Stalker, as they enter into a post-apocalyptic wasteland only known as ‘the Zone’ to find a room that grants their deepest wish. When the three are on their way to cross into the zone the rhythmic metallic noise of their railcar’s pump handle is the only sound that breaks the silence. Sono’s citation of Stalker does not end there. Besides the slow pace and lack of information about the whys and how’s —how Stalker’s Zone came about is never really explained —Sono further alludes to Tarkovsky’s work in one of the next scenes.

From inside a half-destroyed building, the camera slowly zooms in onto a window facing the tall weeds of the shore. The crashing waves of the ocean are visible on the horizon. The camera moves closer into the window frame and Yōko becomes visible as she walks through the swaying scrubs towards the viewer. For a few brief seconds, Star’s sepia-tint turns polychrome (Fig. 3). Similarly, in Stalker colour replaces monochrome when the three men enter the Zone. In an eerie foreshadowing of the real-life nuclear exclusion zones to come, Tarkovsky’s film addresses environmental deterioration by depicting the Zone’s ecology as a toxic lifeworld where the laws of man-made science are unhinged. Only Stalker knows how to navigate its invisible dangers. In contrast, in Star Sono misses the opportunity to truly engage with the exclusion zone’s toxic radioactive ecology, instead primarily turning it into an allegorical backdrop.

a green landscape with blue sky
Fig. 3: The landscape in polychrome. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.

As the camera zooms in on the window, simultaneously with the change to polychrome, a rendition of the baroque suite Tombeau pour Monsieur de Lully (1701) by Marin Marais begins to play in a melancholic b-minor.45 The reference to Tombeau, which is French for tombstone, marks a musical piece as an ode to honour a real or sometimes fictional person’s death.46 While the film’s olive-brown hue before highlighted the antiquated look of Sono’s future world and served to establish some distance between the viewer and the reality of the exclusion zone, the sudden burst of colour makes the landscape seem all the more real. As the silence of Star is lifted by the music, for a brief moment nature, now filling the entire screen, is lusciously green, bright blue. It is pulsating and swaying, alive and untamed. The stark realism of the scene all of a sudden firmly anchors us in the present highlighting what has been lost to the disaster. In a brief, painful moment of nostalgia, Sono allows the viewer to return home, a moment of respite. All the more oppressive feels the recoil to the monochrome future, all the more pertinent is the loss of the present. This juxtaposition heightens the viewer’s cognitive estrangement from the Fukushima landscape as the film continues.

The End of Science, the End of Politics

Throughout the film, it is slowly revealed what the contents of Yōko’s packages are. In one scene she curiously starts to examine them. She picks up, parcel after parcel, gently swaying them side to side (Fig. 4). She draws each one closer to her ear, listening to the soft swishing sound the content makes as it moves inside the box. She studies the name of the recipient on one of the boxes, ‘Ingrid Coach’. Finally, she opens it and removes the content, a film negative. When she holds it towards the light, four undeveloped photographs of an elderly man with two small children become visible. Yōko continues to open and peek inside the boxes. Seemingly random, mundane things become visible: a used palette with paint and two brushes, some dead butterflies, a single pencil, a cigarette stub, a fishing bait, a used paper cup, a photograph of a little girl in a white dress. Yōko closes her eyes. She seems to understand that despite their mundanity these objects carry great intimacy, an expression of value for both sender and recipient. The conglomerate of things carry within them fragments of a time past, a time before the cataclysm catapulted the remaining humans into isolated lonesomeness. As such the practice of collecting and sharing fragments of the past resembles a similar archiving and preservation practice of many people affected by the 3/11 disaster. Searching the ruins of their tsunami-destroyed or radioactively contaminated homes, victims and evacuees tried to salvage the things that once belonged to their loved ones. Collecting the objects that reminded them of a happier past, now lost to the disaster, may represent a form of self-soothing activity, a way to deal with the trauma of the cataclysm. However, to engross oneself in memories and to relive the past to such an extent as to be completely numbed from the present is dangerous as it may result in passive resignation. In how far such a retraction from reality and political agency is detrimental becomes especially apparent, when looking at the next scene of the film.

a woman looks a parcels in a room stacked high with cardboard boxes
Fig. 4: Yōko (Kagurazaka Megumi) examining her packages. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.

After the completion of her first delivery, back on board her spaceship, Yōko starts to tape her thoughts. It is a voice diary for the next person to rent the spaceship as we learned in a previous scene. Yōko repeatedly lights a match, watching the flames dwindle, lighting another match before the previous one extinguishes (Fig. 5). She intently observes the flames, walking along the length of her abode. Yōko reminisces in whispers about her delivery service, which feeds on humans’ adoration for space and time. The packages she transports from human to human, she ponders, are the only way to convey feelings between sender and recipient. Teleportation was available, but its convenience, the conflation of space and time, led to the deterioration of human feelings. As the match extinguishes she stands in the cockpit and staring into space whispers ‘the last pride of humanity may be that which comes from the impotence of machines. This adoration toward distance and time is probably … similar to the pulsing of a heartbeat to a human’ (0:43:28).

a woman recording on a tape deck and smoking
Fig. 5: Yōko (Kagurazaka Megumi) recording. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.

In Yōko’s universe, human conquests into science and technology are over. However, her monologue suggests that technology advanced slightly before humans completely withdrew from technological progress in exchange for an obsession with emotions, sentimentality and nostalgia, and preservation of their ‘adoration towards distance and time’. Conversely, the complete renunciation of order and logic, in favour of impulse and emotions runs the danger of the last remaining humans’ regression into a state of dazed dependency. Similar to the drug ‘soma’ which secures a state of euphoric timelessness of the denizens of writer Alfred Huxley’s science fiction dystopia Brave New World (1932), keeping humans in a state of emotive longing, dependent on the supply of memorabilia delivered by a machine, ultimately translates into a form of social control.47 The trade-off is stark, as efficacy, curiosity and logical thinking are numbed. Arguably these were also traits that defined us as human beings before machines became better at them. On first impression, Sono himself seems to equally rejoice in this nostalgia and employs tropes similarly to what Jameson termed a ‘postmodernist “nostalgia” art language’ 48. Rather than aiming at a faithful representation of historical content, this mode according to Jameson ‘approached the “past” through stylistic connotation, conveying “pastness” by the glossy qualities of the image, and “1930s-ness” or “1950s-ness” by the attributes of fashion’.49

Although Star does not display quite as glossy images as the ‘nostalgia films’ Jameson cites, the conglomerate of anachronistic devices in the spaceship and Yōko’s fashion amount to a kind of stock representation of ‘pastness’, conveyed through ‘stylistic connotation’. Upon the first view, the spaceship’s interior with its tatami-mat floor, time-worn kitchen unit with stove and wooden cupboard resembles the interior of a small Japanese flat from the latter half of the Shōwa period (1926-1989). This past, which includes the post-war period of unmitigated economic success and progress, seems to be the subject of Star’s nostalgic longing, a longing that might derive from the current state of post-disaster Japanese society as economically stagnant and ageing. Equally, the analogue technology of the spaceship’s cockpit —it is full of plugs and buttons, but without digital screens —and the recorder that Yōko uses to record her tapes, seem to come from the 1950s or 60s. Yōko’s loose short-sleeved blouse and high-waisted circular skirt, as well as her short wavy bob firmly locate her within that period. However, upon closer inspection, other elements within the spaceship’s interior, such as the washing machine that appears to be from the 1990s reveal themselves as anachronistic. It is a past idealized and distilled from memory, in Jameson’s words ‘beyond real historical time’.50 In its conglomeration of artefacts and merging of pasts, as a science-fiction dystopia, but also historical reverence, Star’s aesthetics seem to represent what Jameson identified as a postmodern pastiche, a pasting together of styles and genres without the socially critical element of parody.51 However, Sono’s choice to represent the future as a return to the past could also be understood as containing inherent criticism towards the current state of post-3/11 Japan. Implicit is perhaps an underlining warning. Governmental control, censorship and the majority of the Japaneses complacency about political change may lead to the end of history as warned by Jameson and predicted by Fukuyama, a future without significant advancements that can only ever be regressive.

Together with the withdrawal from the present into an inner emotive world, confined to the eternal reliving of the past, comes the political blankness that Star’s universe portrays. No information is disclosed about the machines that govern space. Neither Yōko nor her human clients seem to have any political aspirations. The apoliticism that Star depicts thus seems to project a dystopian future vision resulting from the publicly accepted post-war image propagated by the Japanese government of Japanese society as harmonious and coherent. As writer William Andrews points out, the Japanese post-war government retained the official status quo, by denouncing and suppressing protest groups and ignoring large-scale protests until they would fizzle out.52 These same mechanisms could be observed post-3/11. The first few years after the Fukushima disaster saw a brief resurgence of anti-nuclear activism. These protests were especially distinguished through the newly enlarged participation of the younger generation of mothers, students, and working singles in their thirties and early forties.53 These were people who otherwise did not identify as activists or even as having a political stance.54 However, since 2015, this demographic largely returned to a state of apparent political disinterest and indifference to exercise their rights to vote in Japan’s two party-system that lacks any real alternatives to mainstream politics.55 Much of this low interest in activism can be attributed to frustration with the seeming ineffectiveness and the invisibility of anti-government political action due to censorship in official media and press outlets.56 Another factor might be the numbing out of political interest due to a focus on consumerism and postmodernist pop culture consumption. These are aspects integral to Japan as a society of late capitalism as defined by Jameson.57

In his review of Sono’s Star, art critic Sawaragi Noi points out that the film’s whisper (hiso hiso) represents a counterpart to the loud squawk (gagaga) of Sono’s 1993 noisy group actions Tokyo GaGaGa (Tōkyō Gagaga 東京ガガガ).58 These were centred on guerilla-style interventions into public space made up of Sono and others wearing costumes, waving flags and carrying large banners through the streets of Shibuya, Tokyo’s hub of shopping and entertainment. They accompanied their march by screams of ‘Tokyo gagaga’ into several megaphones. Despite the protest-like appearance, Sono describes his movement retrospectively as meaningless, aimless and irreligious.59 Confirming this assessment, Sawaragi maintains that no political demands were being made by the group.60

Arguably for their shocking, nonsensical and outlandish appearance, Sono’s group interventions were included in Jean-Jacques Beinex’s film Otaku (1994).61 The documentary opens with the record of one of Tokyo GaGaGa’s street interventions in 1993. Sōno is visible screaming into the megaphone: ‘Where do we take off? What is man’s status today? Where is the town of my childhood? What is the point of living through another Sunday without an aim, when we are oppressed every other week?’.62 Further into the documentary, Sono is being interviewed as the leader of the Tokyo GaGaGa group. He exclaims the group’s interventions are a way to find an alternative route for people, a method to reclaim the streets for expression (39:34). According to Sono, the city has lost its ability to say something and streets are now being used purely as means to get from A to B. Contrary to Sono and Sawaragi’s retrospective repudiation, Tokyo GaGaGa thus was deeply political at its core. It is precisely in its nonsensical, non-communicative expressiveness that it revolts against the shackles of societal pressure to conform to the system at a moment of societal turnover due to the loss of stable jobs and livelong employment concomitant with the burst of the bubble economy in 1991.63 Transporting banners with a message such as ‘From here on there will be no left or right, no upper or lower, Tokyo GaGaGa’ the movement seems to be lamenting precisely the postmodern loss of identity of the Japanese of late capitalism and the hopelessness of its drawn-out apocalypse, as identified by Jameson and Kumar respectively.64

Considering the collapse of identity and feelings of precarity in the face of late capitalist society that Sono experienced in the 1990s, the quiet apolitical whisper in which Star’s universe portrays the future comes as a logical counterpart to this situation. As Sawaragi points out, around the same time that Sono was intervening publicly in the streets of Tokyo, he was sitting alone in his tiny ‘spaceship-like’ apartment foreseeing that ‘at some point in the future hiso-hiso would arrive on this planet’.65 While Tokyo GaGaGa was a way to revolt against the feelings of loss and hopelessness, Star contains an underlying critique in that it mirrors Japanese society’s lack of political alternatives, a resignation to conform to the status quo and the acceptance of a visionless ahistorical future without any major improvements. The pertinence of Star’s vision is exemplified by its easy adaptation to and representation of the post-3/11 Japan twenty-five years later. It thus projects a continuation of Japan being stuck indefinitely in the postmodern apocalypse, at least from 1991 to today.

The tie between Tokyo GaGaGa and Star was further emphasized when both were exhibited by artist collective Chim↑Pom in 2015 in their gallery space Garter in Kōenji, sub-culture hub and location of Sono’s apartment from 1991. Banners and film documentations of Tokyo GaGaGa’s interventions covered the front of the gallery and were displayed inside alongside several screens playing selected scenes from Star, then-unreleased (Fig 6. and Fig. 7). Juxtaposed to the screaming banners, lamenting the postmodern loss of identity, the political void of Star’s universe becomes all the more apparent. Star presents a future scenario that is deeply dystopian. Therefore, the film can be considered as a warning for the impending loss of political agency of much of the Japanese public post-3/11, as anti-nuclear and anti-government activism was traded off for superficial social harmony and conformity in favour of succumbing to the pressures of the Japanese government to be the ideal diligent citizen.66

fabric signage in Tokyo above a building
Fig. 6: Sono Sion, Tokyo GaGaGa (2015). Installation view. Gallery Garter, Tokyo, Japan. © Photo: the author.
Sōno Sion, Tokyo GaGaGa (2015). Installation view
Fig. 7: Sono Sion, Tokyo GaGaGa (2015). Installation view. Gallery Garter, Tokyo, Japan. © Photo: the author.

The Fallibility of Memory and Representation

Instead of exercising political agency, the denizens of Star’s Universe are kept trapped in a time lost by memorabilia. Memory is the stuff they feed on, supplied to them by the machines that govern them. However, there is not just one layer to the meaning of Star’s theme of memory. While the focus on the reliving of memories instead of acting in the present inside of Star’s narrative is a way to ensure political apathy, the film itself also has a political function in keeping the memory about the Fukushima disaster and its victims alive. On the film’s official website Sono introduces Star by stating that his intention to make the film was to create a ‘small poem for a weathered memory’.67 In the Japanese original, the term Sono uses for weathered is fūka (風化). This term, which equally refers to the erosion of geological materials and the fading of memories, carries political implications. It was frequently used as part of the post-3/11 disaster discourse to refer to the fading away of the affected area, the disaster victims and evacuees from public awareness.68 Willful amnesia and a desire to return to business as usual rapidly gripped the Japanese public outside of the disaster-stricken area, replacing recollections of the disaster with nostalgia for a past already lost.

Memory is just as unreliable as our perception of reality is. Sono seems to refer to this, right at the beginning of the film. When Yōko lights her gas stove to make tea, the camera shows a close-up of her fingers opening a matchbox. On the face of the box, the image of a pipe is printed, over it bold letters read ‘THE PIPE’ (Fig. 8). It is the reversal of René Magritte’s famous 1929 painting The Treachery of Images of a pipe with the slogan ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe) beneath it. While Magritte refused to lie to the viewer of his painting, making them aware of the ambiguity of visual representation, the blatant lie of Sono’s matchbox makes us aware of discrepancies and ambiguities between what is perceptible and what is hidden underneath. Just as within post-3/11 irradiated Japan, what is visible and what we are being told is used to mask a reality hidden like the matches in their matchbox. It is then a call to read between the lines of representation and question reality. Star’s feigned postmodern pastiche represents the past as a memory superimposed onto a dystopian future. It is a memory that is unreliable and that mixes and matches different memories to create a multiple-layered nostalgic environment, which we should not take for what it appears to be. While Sono repeats the tropes of postmodern culture identified by Jameson, he does so deliberately. Paring them with a science fiction narrative that serves to highlight the conditions of the present, he employs these tropes to articulate a warning against a continuation of the status quo of Japanese society. This condition, he cautions, will inevitably lead to a dystopian future. Sono thus makes apparent a shift to representation as reality, in the way that he replaces modernist painter Magritte’s highlighting of the puzzling bogus effect of image likeness with a postmodernist reference to the indistinguishability between representation and reality, and the discrepancies between information, image and reality. As such, this highlights the conditions of post-3/11 Japan, where the government’s discourse about ‘damage by rumours’, censorship and lack of information skewed the boundaries between reality and fiction.69 Equally, the image propagated of the exclusion zone’s ecology as recovering may be misleading, as the invisible threat of radiation is still continuously lingering.

film still showing a match box printed with the words
Fig. 8: The matchbox. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.

Liminal Spaces of Life and Death

According to scholar of Japanese literature Tanaka Motoko, in the apocalyptic imaginary, the end of the world corresponds to the idea of one’s death.70 In postmodern times apocalypse is as immanent to life as our mortality. Undoubtedly, the Fukushima disaster brought the abstract idea of death, in form of a near-death experience or the decease of a loved one, closer to many in Japan. Such an experience in itself can represent some kind of personal apocalypse, in the sense of being a painful, upending and transformative event. Closely related to memories and time is thus, Star’s inclusion of the opposing themes of life and death, as well as the viewer’s cognitive estrangement from the victims of the disaster through their representation as living dead. Together with Tokyo GaGaGa and scenes from Star, the exhibition at Garter displayed an installation of Sono’s Hachiko Project (2015, Fig. 9). Sono was inspired by the statue of Hachiko the dog, which is the marker of a popular meet-up spot in front of Tokyo’s busy Shibuya station. The statue commemorates a faithful dog, who would wait for his owner at the same spot every day, even after his master had died. For Hachiko Project, Sono had several replicas of the statue’s plinth as well as of the dog made. He positioned an empty plinth next to the original statue in Shibuya, while he transported the replica of the dog to several places in Fukushima. The installation at Garter then consisted of an empty plinth, a complete Hachiko statue and photographs of the replica Hachiko’s travels. The photographs showed him on his plinth by the Fukushima Sea, next to deserted buildings of the exclusion zone and decontamination workers and in the front yard of an elderly couple, Suzuki Toyōko and Noboru, right outside of the exclusion zone.71 The Suzuki’s also participated in Star, where they took on the roles of recipients of Yōko’s packages. The project imagines a story, where Hachiko leaves Shibuya, where he was destined to wait oblivious to the fact that his master would never return, to join those who are the eternal waiting to return home to a past, which can never be restored. Hachiko Project thus represents a connecting link between Shibuya in Tokyo and various places in and around the Fukushima exclusion zone. As the press release to the Garter exhibition pointed out, Hachiko Project served to connect Tokyo GaGaGa and Star.72 It is the conceptual glue between the shout and the whisper, two sides of the same coin of the postmodern apocalypse.

Sōno Sion, Hachiko Project (2015). Installation view.
Fig. 9: Sono Sion, Hachiko Project (2015). Installation view. Gallery Garter, Tokyo, Japan. © Photo: the author.

Sono exhibited a slightly larger version of the installation in his second solo show at the Watari-Um a year later. There he extended the work by adding another statue, which shows Hachiko in mid-launch to leave his plinth. A sitting Hachiko, a leaping Hachiko and an empty plinth were presented as a trinity, the bright red wall behind the statues was filled with script in white paint (Fig. 10). The scribbles consisted of a poem by Sono that begins with the words ‘I am not here anymore’.73 In the catalogue to the Watari-Um show, Sono compares the statue of Hachiko to a tombstone, something that is waiting for the dead.74 Hachiko visits the towns where the affected by the disaster congregate to reclaim the present that was lost to the disaster, a present that never materialized. Hachiko represents the embodiment of an unfulfilled wish, condemned to eternal waiting, unable to relieve it. Thus, Hachiko is in Sono’s eyes the harbinger of death, as people will come to realize, eternally reliving the past, they are already dead and the future is finished.75 This loss of history is an inherent realization of postmodernism.

two large sculptures of dogs
Fig. 10: Sono Sion, Hachiko Project (2015-16). Installation view. WATARI-UM, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan. © Photo: the author.
silhouetted figures on a beach, film still from The Whispering Star
Fig. 11: Yōko (Kagurazaka Megumi) delivers a package. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.

One strange-looking scene in Star shows Yōko delivering a package on a beach. Broken pieces of concrete walls, crookedly hanging to one side, raw metal poles sticking out at the top, which frame Yōko as she moves along sandy grounds, reveal themselves to be pieces of tsunami walls. However, again the landscape becomes an allegory, as Sono uses the Fukushima shoreline with strewn blocks and half-destroyed concrete constructions as the backdrop to a scene that comes as a representation of the Fukushima victims as living dead. There is a succession of wide shots which show the victims of the disaster as beings of this planet that Yōko visits. They stand facing the camera, still immobile, ghost-like. In the next scene, Yōko walks from right to left across the beach towards the recipient of her package, an old lady (Mori Kōko) sitting atop a little plateau with stairs behind a shop-front oddly perched in the middle of the beach. As Yōko walks towards the old lady she passes several more people, just standing or sitting frozen on the beach, facing different directions, as if waiting for something that never arrived (Fig. 11). Perhaps they are the ones who are still waiting for the arrival of their packages, packages that will keep them in the past, unable to participate in the present.

In the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster, people of the affected areas shared many stories about ghost sightings of those who had lost their lives to the mega wave.76 However, as their representation in Star implies, also the evacuees of the exclusion zone, who experienced the sudden death of their lives as they once were due to the apocalyptic event of the disaster, can be considered as living ghosts. The anthropologist Tok Thompson points out that stories about ghosts are often a way to lend expression to the ‘oppressed and morally wronged’ who haunt the present due to harm experienced during their life, at the time of or after their death.77 The evacuees of the 3/11 disaster, who faced the loss of their livelihoods but have to continue living, are survivors but at the same time doomed to persevere in an eternal state of victimhood.78 Meanwhile, the nuclear disaster continues to unfold as a long-drawn-out apocalypse. Not really alive, but not yet dead they are destined to wait, without really knowing for what. The past is forever lost, condensed to a breaking point, almost loop-like culminating to ‘that day’ stuck in time, while the present they wished for can never arrive and the future is finished. As ghost stories are the stories of the oppressed and mistreated, the estrangement of the Fukushima evacuees as ghost-like also reflects the real-life discrimination that the people of the disaster areas had to endure post-3/11. Fukushima farmers experienced a stark loss of sales in produce.79 Evacuees that had moved to areas outside of Fukushima experienced bad mouthing and harassment due to the stigma of radiation and irrational fears that it could be passed on like a contagious disease.80

This motif of humans inhabiting a liminal space between life and death without rootedness in the present, the condition of the subject inside postmodern apocalypse, is further explored in a scene that represents somewhat of a climax in Star’s storyline. As Yōko’s spaceship approaches the place of her last delivery, Planet #62678, the only remaining habitat made up solely of humans, her board computer 6-7 M.I.M.E informs her of the human rules she will have to abide by. Yōko cannot emit sounds louder than 30 decibels, the volume of a whisper. Anything louder is considered a felony and may be fatal to humans. The setting to this planet is different from all the ones Yōko visited before. Instead of using the Fukushima landscape as a backdrop, a large corridor with a plastic laminate floor, shoji screens lining it on both sides, makes up the theatre-like set (Fig. 12). These traditional Japanese paper screens are lit from behind. As within a shadow-play, the outlines of scenes from everyday life are visible. As Yōko walks, calling out for Ms Sori, the recipient of her package, the shadow silhouettes of humans in various scenes of life and death become visible: children playing, funerals, birthday parties, old people praying, a family sharing a meal.

a figure walking down a dark corridor with projections on either side
Fig. 12: Yōko (Kagurazaka Megumi) on Planet #62678. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.
Sōno Sion, The Bridge on the Edge of Death (2016) Installation view.
Figure 13: Sono Sion, The Bridge on the Edge of Death (2016) Installation view. WATARI-UM, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan. © Photo: the author.

Sono included a version of this very set as an installation in his exhibition at the Watari-Um. There the work was called The Bridge on the Edge of Death (imawa no kiwa no hashi 今際の際の橋) (2016, Fig. 13). As a visitor, one took on the role of Yōko walking between the screens and curiously observing these scenes of everyday life. Behind one screen a whisper was audible asking in Japanese ‘This place, is it the world of the living or is it the world of the dead?’.81 As visitors, we experience these haunting traces of human existence as uncanny, otherworldly, but cannot help but project ourselves onto the faceless silhouettes, mentally aligning our past and potential future, the hallmark moments of our lives, with the sights of life and death. The installation in the museum, just as the scene in the film, represents the passage between life and death. There is an eerie dream-like quality to it, just as the ghostly humans encountered before, these silhouettes are neither alive nor dead and perhaps they are not even real. Humans that have turned into their memories, representations of a past lost, a present that could have been and a future that will never materialize. Depicting human stock scenes from cradle to grave, Yōko’s entry to the corridor in the film is underlined with what sounds like the gentle chimes of a child’s musical box, perhaps signifying the beginning of life. The sound is soon replaced by Marais’s Tombeau, thus, referring to a life’s end, mourning and a sense of nostalgia.

Sawaragi compared the string of scenes to those that one might have encountered in the succession of rooms at a temporary shelter in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster.82 Following his interpretation, the silhouettes are representations of the disaster victims, in this final scene, however, now less than ghosts, just memories of a past, present and future lost to the disaster. Strikingly, Sono places us in the position of Yōko, making it easier to identify with the android, than with the remaining humans of Star’s universe. The recognition that Yōko appears to us more human than the last denizens of Star, leads to the final part of this analysis: the exploration of the character of Yōko and the transformation she undergoes in the course of the film.

The Human in the Machine – Android Suzuki Yōko

Androids, human-shaped robots, are a reoccurring subject of science fiction narratives. Seminal science fiction films such as Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner or Steven Spielberg’s 2001 AI employ the figure of the android in juxtaposition with the human to get to grips with the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Star echoes these earlier science fiction classics in the way that Sono depicts Yōko as incredibly human-like. It is not until about twenty minutes into the film that it is slowly revealed that the thirty-something woman we are witnessing engaging in household tasks, mind you on a spaceship, is, in fact, a machine. Yōko makes and drinks tea. She cleans, enjoys a can of beer and she sneezes. Playing into gender stereotypes, Sono equips her with somewhat motherly features in the way he depicts her, equipped with an apron and matching headscarf, performing housework and maintenance on the spaceship, as well as caring for and parenting her board computer 6-7 M.I.M.E.

The character of M.I.M.E represents a complete opposite to Yōko. Yōko, although artificial intelligence, is very much defined by her bodily appearance. M.I.M.E, however, who has the appearance of a vacuum tube radio is characterized by his disembodied voice (Fig. 14). His child-like tone, his dysfunctionality —he thinks the moths trapped in the ceiling light are the planets whose coordinates he has to configure —and the way he likes to take an inventory by counting, make him appear innocent and playful. The relationship between M.I.M.E and Yōko thus seems almost like a parody of a typical narrative pattern of the postmodern Japanese apocalyptic imaginary. The inclusion of parody would further prove that Star only appears to mimic a postmodern pastiche on the surface while containing inherent criticism. Tanaka points out that since the 1990s the apocalypse is often turned into an ancillary allegory for the real focus of the story, which is the love between the immature, clumsy male main character and the brave girlfriend or mother figure.83 Subsequently, the inclusion of the Fukushima landscape becomes secondary to the exploration of the character Yōko and what it means to be human. Her constellation with M.I.M.E reflects the postmodern loss of and the quest for identity of the primarily male subject, addressed in Tokyo GaGaGa, as well as the post-war sense of emasculation of the Japanese due to their defeat in the Second World War. This interpretation seems to be confirmed by the only other male character which we get to know more closely.

film still from The Whispering Star
Fig. 14: The board computer 6-7 M.I.M.E. (Ikeda Yuto). The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.
sepia film still of a man and a dog from The Whispering Star
Fig. 15: The jester (Endo Kenji). The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.

On one of her voyages, Yōko gets into contact with one of the male denizens (Endo Kenji) of Star’s universe. He is introduced to us when he walks towards the camera along the streets of a ghost town. The nameless man is dressed in a Shōwa-style white suit with a vest, black tie, hat and beige overcoat (Fig. 15). His behaviour identifies him as somewhat of a madman or jester. He talks to a tortoise and a plastic cast of a dog that bears resemblance to Hachiko. There is also a certain infantilism about him, as he whistles and walks with an empty can attached to his shoe because he likes the sound it makes. When he meets Yōko, she only reluctantly engages in a whispering conversation with him. As she gets her spaceship ready for departure, the jester appears outside the front window of her vehicle, soils it with some white paint all the while madly laughing and dancing. In a reflection of the post-disaster conditions of fragmented communities and isolated individuals, the jester’s lonely existence in Star’s post-apocalyptic universe might have contributed to his madness.

Juxtaposing Yōko with characters like M.I.M.E and the jester, but also with the ghostly appearances of the last remaining humans, makes her seem all the more human in comparison. One can look past a few odd instances where she switches her batteries in a compartment on her stomach, drinks out of a machine oil bottle or sleeps standing up. Yōko is an embodiment of the dissolution of boundaries between nature and technology. In the post-apocalyptic universe and despite her appearance as novum, Yōko seems familiar, while humans seem uncanny, cognitively estranged. The anthropologist and Japanese Studies scholar Jennifer Robertson, in the context of her research into androids in Japan, points out that the Japanese conception of nature helps to understand the way robots are perceived as ‘natural things’ in the popular culture of Japan.84 It is somewhat reductive to say that the Japanese live in a way more closely with nature integrating it with culture and society.85After all, environmental pollution is as much a part of Japanese society as it is of any other late capitalist nation.86 However, Robertson has a point in saying that the widespread Shintō-derived belief in Kami, ‘vital forces, deities, or essences residing in, or embodied as, organic and inorganic things’, makes it even easier for a Japanese audience to imagine inorganic beings such as Yōko as imbued with sensitivity and affect.87

Throughout the film, as the post-apocalyptic premise and its toxic ecology get more and more delegated to the background, Sono presents Yōko as undergoing a transformation brought on by her encounters with humans and death. The android increasingly comes to grasp with the meaning of life and death, memory and emotions as she begins to develop some of her own. She displays a sense of compassion, while simultaneously referring to the fallibility of machines, a trait arguably formerly reserved for humans, when she consoles M.I.M.E about his dysfunctionality with ‘Don’t worry, we all make mistakes, I am a machine too’ (0:25:22). Yōko also displays anger and remorse. She learns to appreciate sounds and how to ride a bike. When she records her own voice on tapes ‘for the purpose of starving off boredom’ and for the next Yōko that will inherit the ship from her, it suggests a sense of self, a need to communicate, document and leave a mark among the thousands of identical machines to not be forgotten.

In several instances, Yōko encounters death or grief for something that has been lost. When she is about to board her spaceship after encountering the jester and he asks her for a drink and she declines, he tells her ‘Come back soon. I’ll be dead before long’ (0:54:17). For Yōko, however, time runs differently, her body does not age and days, weeks or years—this is how long her deliveries sometimes take—do not matter for her. When she delivers a package to a certain Mr Coach, the recipient she wanted to reach is already dead. Only a silhouette of white tape on the floor marks where his deceased body must have perished (Fig. 16). Throughout this scene, the only other musical piece of Star, a rendition of Ave Maria is audible. It is a musical piece usually dedicated to a beloved one who passed away. Upon completing her last delivery, the scene in the corridor of Shoji screens, as Yōko hands over her package, she witnesses the grief it elicits in its recipient. As she returns to her spaceship a close-up on her face reveals that Yōko herself is tearing up. In the final scene of the movie, Yōko places a squashed can, one that she had been carrying around attached to her boot just like the jester, into a cardboard box. This suggests that she has come to understand the emotional power of memories and has turned into a truly sentient being.

a candlelit dining room, film still from The Whispering Star
Fig. 16: Yōko (Kagurazaka Megumi) encounters death. The Whispering Star, dir. Sono Sion (2015). Film still. © sion production.

Although towards the end her emotive responses become more visible, Yōko remains obscure and somewhat flat as a character. However, the juxtaposition with the ghost-like human beings makes her nevertheless seem more multi-faceted and all the more alive. The post-apocalyptic dystopia of Star focuses on the personal evolution of the machine into a sentient being as an optimistic outlook, because the desolateness of society and the collapse of ecology as an event that has already occurred cannot be resolved. Thus against this implicit warning about what the present status quo of Japan may ultimately lead to, hope persists in the thought that we as a species might not survive, but the essence of being human, which is emotions will, even if they will no longer be our own.


This chapter examined Sono’s film Star based on the importance of investigating science fiction narratives to study the contemporary social and political dynamics which they reflect in their visions of the future. Based on the coevalness of the genesis of Star’s script in the early 1990s, the analysis drew on Jameson’s postmodern cultural critique and the social and cultural characteristics he recognizes within the age of late capitalism. Following these theoretical and methodological prerequisites, the analysis highlighted how the post-apocalyptic setting of Star depicted the future as postmodern apocalypse: accumulative, drawn-out and without hope for renewal. However, I identified this depiction of a future dystopia defined by a nostalgic longing for a past as a warning. In this context, the film contains an inherent critique towards the treatment of the disaster victims and the upholding of the status quo through the lack of political alternatives, as well as the destabilization of reality through censorship and representation as is the case in post-3/11 Japan.

By examining the film in juxtaposition to Sono’s artistic interventions of the 1990s and mid-2010s, in the form of Tokyo GaGaGa and Hachiko Project, a continuity and aggravation especially of the issues of lack of political alternatives —as most of Japanese society despite cataclysmic moments continued to return to a status quo of apparent complacency —effacing of historicity and loss of identity from 1990s to past the disaster became apparent. The dystopian quality of Star‘s vision of the postmodern apocalypse became especially pertinent, in the way that Star does not fashion a solution to these issues. Instead, the film warns that the future for humans might be irredeemably finished if the Japanese people continue to evade political agency, cautioning that machines will become better at being humans than humans themselves.

Finally, Sono’s inclusion of the real ravaged landscapes of Fukushima and the disaster victims serves to remind audiences of their ongoing state of precarity. However, in the course of the film, Sono eschews engaging more deeply with the toxic ecology that is part of Star’s narrative premise. Warning against a loss of history as based on the lack of human political agency, as well as political, scientific and cultural advancement as portrayed by Star ultimately also translates into an anthropocentric perception of what constitutes history. It eschews the recognition that nonhuman agencies shape and decisively impact what we as humans retrospectively perceive as history. Foregoing engagement with the interrelationship of humans and their environment made apparent by the 3/11 disaster, Sono transforms the real-life exclusion zone of Fukushima into a surface for an anthropocentric projection. This projection is constituted by the anxiety about the loss of identity as a real sense of past, present and future is replaced with nostalgia for an idealized past, as Star warns that the present and future that could have been were inevitably lost to the disaster. Additionally, non-humans, Yōko the android and animals in the form of Hachiko, turn into projective surfaces to further inquire into human emotions and what it means to be human. Therefore, while the destabilization of humans’ status and place in the world is mourned, Sono forgoes any explicit reference to radioactive contamination, ecological collapse or the extinction of animal and plant life within the exclusion zone of Fukushima.


1 All Japanese names are written according to Japanese convention with surname first. Exceptions are Japanese living and working abroad or those who themselves write their names in the Western convention. These are given with first name first.
2 Along with ‘Fukushima disaster’ or just ‘Fukushima’ the events have also been labeled by referring to them by their date as ‘3/11.’ As of 2021 the exclusion zone makes up only 2,5% of the prefecture of Fukushima. Therefore, to avoid conflation of the whole prefecture to a symbol for the disaster and for brevity’s sake I will refer to the event by its date.
3 ‘Transition of Evacuation Designated Zones’, Fukushima Prefecture Website, accessed 26 September 2020, https://www.pref.fukushima.lg.jp/site/portal-english/en03-08.html.
4 Towns close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have successively reopened since spring 2017. However, at the time of writing there are still large areas that are uninhabitable. See Masumi Koizumi, ‘Tohoku Tours Shed Light on Life in the Aftermath of the 3/11 Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster’, The Japan Times, March 8, 2019, accessed 26 September 2020, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/03/08/national/tohoku-tours-shed-light-life-aftermath-3-11-tsunami-fukushima-nuclear-disaster/.
5 Apocalypse, which derives from the Greek term ‘apokálypsis’, meaning to uncover, refers to a revealing event, typically involving an end of the world scenario. While the term has its origin in religion, since the twentieth century visions of secular apocalypse caused by nuclear holocaust or ecological catastrophes have increasingly been gaining ground. See, for instance, Malcolm Bull (ed.), Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World, Wolfson College lectures [1993] (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995). The vision of the Fukushima exclusion zone as post-apocalyptic landscape persists as romanticised version even more then ten years after the disaster. See James Whitlow and Mike Ives, ‘Fukushima Photos: 10 Years Later’, The New York Times, March 10, 2021, accessed 1 September 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/10/world/asia/fukushima-japan-nuclear-anniversary.html.
6 Political language both in Japan and abroad further mirrored this predominant sense of the apocalyptic in facing the nuclear disaster. On 14 March 2011, then-governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, told the press that he saw the tsunami as divine punishment (tenbatsu 天罰). See Levi McLaughlin, ‘IN THE WAKE OF THE TSUNAMI: Religious Responses to the Great East Japan Earthquake’, CrossCurrents 61:3 (2011):p. 291, accessed 3 November 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24461807. Both former German chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Bundestag chairman of the Social Democratic Party Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the nuclear disaster ‘a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions’ with Steinmeier adding that the disaster ‘radically questions certainties of the past’. See Dana Schülbe, ‘Regierungserklärung Zu Japan: Merkel: „Heldenhafter Wie Verzweifelter Kampf“’, accessed 23 September 2020, https://rp-online.de/panorama/ausland/merkel-heldenhafter-wie-verzweifelter-kampf_aid-13540203 and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, ‘Fukushima: Eine Katastrophe Apokalytischen Ausmaßes: Frank-Walter Steinmeier in der Debatte zur Reaktorkatastrophe von Fukushima’, SPD-Bundestagsfraktion, accessed 23 September 2020, https://www.spdfraktion.de/themen/reden/fukushima-katastrophe-apokalytischen-ausmasses.
7 Environmental historian Sara B. Pritchard has termed the Fukushima disaster an envirotechnical disaster, as it occurred because of the permeability and interplay of natural and sociotechnical processes. See Sara B. Pritchard, ‘An Envirotechnical Disaster: Negotiating Nature, Technology, and Politics at Fukushima,’ in Ian J. Miller, Julia Adeney Thomas and Brett Walker (eds.), Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013), p. 256.
8 Philosopher Bruno Latour points out that the establishment of ‘Society’ and ‘Nature’ can be traced back to the seventeenth century and argues for a removal of the artificial boundary between them to fully discern non-human agency. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 110–11.
9 Katsuya Hirano and Hirotaka Kaisai, ‘“The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Is a Serious Crime”: Interview with Koide Hiroaki 福島核災害は明らかに深刻な犯罪である—小出裕章氏に聞く’, The Asia-Pacific Journal | Japan Focus 14:6 (2016), accessed 27 July 2020, https://apjjf.org/2016/06/Hirano.html.
10 The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, as well as the Fukushima disaster and their aftermath each resulted in multifaceted artistic responses in art, literature, music, theatre and film.
11 Sono is a prolific film-maker with rapid output, well-known for his fast-paced, sometimes campy movies. He is notorious for employing a visual language that is often shocking, full of sex and bloody gore. Sono started his career as a poet before entering filmmaking in the 1980s. He is best known for films such as Suicide Club (Jisatsu Sākuru 自殺サークル, 2001) and Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi 愛のむきだし, 2008).
12 Sono Sion, 園子温作品集 ひそひそ星 Sōno Shion Sakuhinshū Hiso Hiso Boshi [Sono Shion Collection of Works the Whispering Star], Shohan (Tokyo: Asahi Shuppansha, 2016), p. 125.
13園子温 ひそひそ星 Sono Shion Hiso Hiso Boshi [Sono Sion the Whispering Star]’, WATARI-UM, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, accessed 25 September 2020, http://www.watarium.co.jp/exhibition/1603sono/#ex.
14 Veronica de Pieri, ‘Dystopia as a Narrative Keyword: Tawada Yōko’s Responses to Japanese 3/11,’ paru dans Loxias, 54 (2016), accessed 1 September 2021, http://revel.unice.fr/loxias/index.html?id=8533.
15 For an in-depth analysis of two Fukushima-related installation works see Theresa Deichert, ‘Contested Sites, Contested Bodies: Post-3.11 Collaborations, Agency, and Metabolic Ecologies in Japanese Art’, The Journal of Transcultural Studies 11:2 (2020), accessed 4 November 2021, https://doi.org/10.17885/heiup.jts.2020.2.24246.
16 Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005), pp. 287-88.
17 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), pp. xx–xxi.
18 Jameson, Postmodernism, p. ix; Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 17.
19 Jameson, Archaeologies, p. 286.
20 As Clélia Zernik remarks, post-Fukushima artistic production often takes up ghosts as a theme that symbolises the deceased, but also an uncanny invisible presence. Her examples include the works of Ohmaki Shinji (Liminal Air, 2014), Osawa Tsuyoshu (Return of…, 2017) and Yanagi Yukinori (Project God-zilla ‘The Basement of Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall’, 2017). See Clélia Zernik, ‘Japanese Art After Fukushima Through the Prism of Festivals’, Critique d’art 49 (2017): p. 116, https://doi.org/10.4000/critiquedart.27197.
21 Tanaka Motoko argues that the defeat of the War destabilized national identity and led to a sense of immaturity as it challenged the pre-War perception of the Japanese as aggressor and colonial power. Motoko Tanaka, Apocalypse in Contemporary Japanese Science Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137373557, pp. 3–4. While Japan emerged as an economic superpower in the post-World War II era, this identity was again lost with the burst of the bubble economy.
22 Seminal publications on artistic and cultural responses to the 3.11-disaster include Lisette Gebhardt and Masami Yuki (eds.), Literature and Art After ‘Fukushima’: Four Approaches, Reihe zur japanischen Literatur und Kultur Vol. 7 (Berlin: EB-Verl., 2014), Barbara Geilhorn and Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt (eds.), Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, (London: Routledge, 2016), and Yasushi Kurabayashi, Shinsai to Āto Ano Toki, Geijutsu Ni Nani Ga Dekita No Ka 震災とアート あのとき, 芸術に何ができたのか [Earthquake Disaster and Art: What Could Art Do at That Time?], Shohan (Tokyo: Bookend, 2013).
23 For an analysis of post-3.11 documentary films see Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, NO NUKES: ‘Posuto 3.11’ Eiga No Chikara, Āto No Chikara 〈ポスト311〉映画の力アートの力 [‘Post 3.11’ the Power of Movies and the Power of Art], Shohan (Nagoya-shi: Nagoya Daigaku Shuppankai, 2021).
24 Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, ‘Gendering “Fukushima”: Resistance, Self-Responsibility, and Female Hysteria in Sono Sion’s Land of Hope’, in Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, Barbara Geilhorn and Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt (eds.), Routledge contemporary Japan series 63 (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 110.
25 Although scholarly consensus attested greater visibility for critically engaged works of art in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster, self-censorship continues to pervade contemporary art and film in Japan due to difficulty to receive funding or find a platform for works with precarious content. Recent incidents, such as the closure of the Aichi Bienniale in 2019, further suggest a setback in the context of freedom of expression within arts and cultural production in Japan. See ‘Aichi Triennale Tests the Limits of Freedom of Expression in Japan – Biennial Foundation’, accessed 3 March 2020, https://www.biennialfoundation.org/2019/11/aichi-triennale-tests-the-limits-of-freedom-of-expression-in-japan/.
26 Himizu is adapted from Furuya Minoru’s 2001 manga of the same name. After 3/11, Sono rewrote his script to include the disaster lanscape as a backdrop. See Kenta McGrath, ‘3/11 Cinema’, Senses of Cinema, 92 (2019), accessed 25 August 2020, https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2019/cinema-in-the-2010s/3-11-cinema/.
27 Sono, 園子温作品集 ひそひそ星 Sono Shion Sakuhinshū Hiso Hiso Boshi [Sono Shion Collection of Works The Whispering Star], p. 58.
28 For an extensive discussion of Land of Hope see Iwata-Weickgenannt, ‘Gendering “Fukushima”’.
29 Krishan Kumar, ‘Apocalypse, Millenium and Utopia Today’, in Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World, Malcolm Bull (ed.), Wolfson College lectures [1993] (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 207.
30 Kumar, ‘Apocalypse, Millenium and Utopia Today’, p. 205.
31 Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History’, The National Interest Summer 16 (1989): p. 18, accessed 29 September 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184cited in Kumar, ‘Apocalypse, Millenium and Utopia Today,’ p. 206.
32 Fukuyama, ‘The End of History’, p. 4. Fukuyama extended his essay to a book and published it under an even more apocalyptic title. See Fukuyama, Francis, The end of history and the last man (New York: Free Press, 1992). It is also worth noting that there is an interesting conceptual tension here between the neoliberal discourse’s perception of history as progress and Fukuyama’s proclamation that together with the seemingly uncontested establishment of capitalism history has come to an end.
33 Louis Menand, ‘Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History’, The New Yorker, August 27, 2018, accessed 2 November 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/03/francis-fukuyama-postpones-the-end-of-history. While social and political developments elsewhere have disproven Fukuyama’s theory, since the early 1990s Japan as a country has found itself in a period of stagnation. Immediately after 3/11 there was a sense that social and political change might be possible, however, anti-nuclear movements and public interest in political change have since died down again and Japanese society returned to the status quo.
34 Further apocalyptic events for Japanese society during this period were the Great Hanshin Earthquake that devaestated Kobe and the surrounding area on 27 January 1995 and the deadly Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway by religious cult Aum Shinrikyo on 20 March that same year.
35 Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 10.
36 Considering Japan’s ongoing economical stagnation, the following decades since the 1990s have subsequently been termed as Japan’s ‘lost decades’.
37 Andrew M. Butler, ‘Science Fiction Criticism’, in Nick Hubble and Aris Mousoutzanis (eds.) The Science Fiction Handbook (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), p. 179.
38 Compare M. Keith Booker’s definition of dystopia in M. Keith Booker, Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema, (Lanham Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2010), p. 113.
39 ‘Transformation of the Most Nuclear-Fearful Population to an Atomic Enthusiasts: America’s Psychological Warfare Strategies’, in Richard Krooth, Morris Edelson and Hiroshi Fukurai (eds.), Nuclear Tsunami: The Japanese Government and America’s Role in the Fukushima Disaster (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015).
40 Sono, 園子温作品集 ひそひそ星 Sono Shion Sakuhinshū Hiso Hiso Boshi [Sono Shion Collection of Works The Whispering Star], p. 43.
41 Jessica Langer, ‘Case Studies in Reading 2: Key Theoretical and Critical Texts in Science Fiction Studies’, in Hubble; Mousoutzanis, The Science Fiction Handbook, pp. 103–4.
42 Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, p. 64.
43 Langer, ‘Case Studies in Reading 2: Key Theoretical and Critical Texts in Science Fiction Studies’, p. 104.
44 Stalker is an adaptation of Arkadiĭ Strugat︠s︡kiĭ and Boris Strugat︠s︡kiĭ, Roadside Picnic (London: Gollancz, 1978).
45 Marin Marais, Pieces de viole du second livre, 1701 (1701).
46 Michael Tilmouth and David Ledbetter, Tombeau (I) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000028084.
47 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Harper Collins, 1946).
48 Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 19.
49 Ibid.
50 Jameson, Postmodernism, 21.
51 Jameson, Postmodernism, 17.
52 William Andrews, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima (London: Hurst & Company, 2016), p. 307.
53 Eiji Oguma, ‘A New Wave Against the Rock: New Social Movements in Japan Since the Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown’, The Asia-Pacific Journal | Japan Focus 14:13 (2016), accessed 6 October 2020, https://apjjf.org/2016/13/Oguma.html.
54 Sociologist Aya Hirata Kimura for instance has studied how many women to express their worries about safety post-Fukushima turned to measuring food’s radiation levels instead of engaging in direct political opposition. See Aya Hirata Kimura, Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination After the Fukushima (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
55 The year 2015 marked the protests against the alteration of the self-defence article 9 of the Japanese constitution, a crucial basis of the countries pacifism. See Andrews, Dissenting Japan, p. 300.
56 While foreign media reported, the natioal press barely covered the protests. See Eiji Oguma, Tell the Prime Minister: Shushō Kantei No Mae De 首相官邸の前で [In Front of the Prime Minister’s Residence] (UPLINK CO, 2015), https://www.uplink.co.jp/kanteimae/index_en.php.
57 Jameson, Postmodernism, p. x. In this context, French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, has pointed out that the prevailing global system of capitalism contributes to what he calls the ‘general equivalence’ of catastrophes, where all catastrophes become alike. Cathastrophes such as the Fukushima disaster then do not come as revelatory moments anymore. In the pursuit of technological and economic progress, catastrophes are anticipated as inevitable. See Jean-Luc Nancy, After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes, (trans.) Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), p. 6.
58 Noi Sawaragi, ‘Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 56: A Restatement: The Art of “Ground Zero” (Part 23) Sion Sono and Hiso Hiso Boshi (The Whispering Star) (1)’, Art it, 18 May 2016, accessed 4 November 2021, https://www.art-it.asia/en/u/admin_ed_contri9/8miz13e96cbi5gfcnfpy.
59 Sono, 園子温作品集 ひそひそ星 Sono Shion Sakuhinshū Hiso Hiso Boshi [Sono Shion Collection of Works The Whispering Star], p. 159.
60 Sawaragi, ‘Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 56’.
61 Tokyo GaGaGa does not fit the categorization as ‘Otaku’ though. Otaku refers to someone who displays an obsession, verging on the pathological, with a popular culture product, such as manga, anime, science fiction or video games, to an extent that is negatively impacting the person’s social skills. See Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 3.
62 Translation from Jean-Jacques Beineix, Otaku (France 2 Cinéma, 1994), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgpRRihMUzQ.
63 During this time a new sort of workforce, the so-called freeter, consisting of young part-time workers and creatives emerged. As a young creative during that time, Sono was arguably one of them. See Yoshitaka Mōri, ‘Culture = Politics: The Emergence of New Cultural Forms of Protest in the Age of Freeter’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 6:1 (2005), https://doi.org/10.1080/1462394042000326888.
64 Banner translation taken from Sawaragi, ‘Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 56’ It is especially curious that Sawaragi misses the political implications of Sono’s Tokyo GaGaGa as he locates Sono’s work within the lineage of Japanese avant-garde groups such as Zero Jigen, Kyushu Ha and Zero Dimension.
65 Sawaragi, ‘Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 56’.
66 As Kimura points out, the Japanese government in the aftermath of the disaster for instance asked citizens to not give in to what they construed as harmful rumours about radioactive contamination of foodstuff and diligently support the recovery of East Japan through buying and consuming produce from Fukushima despite concerns over safety. See Kimura, Radiation brain moms, p. 5.
67 Fūka shikaketa kioku nitaishite no chīsana shi wo tsukuritai [風化しかけた記憶に対しての小さな詩を作りたい] Sion Production, ‘Eiga “Hiso Hiso Boshi” Kōshiki Saito 映画『ひそひそ星』公式サイト[Official Website of the Film the Whispering Star]’, accessed 11 October 2019, http://hisohisoboshi.jp.
68 ‘Fukushima-Ken Fūhyō Fūka Taisaku Kyōka Senryaku Ni Tsuite 福島県風評・風化対策強化戦略について [About the Strategy to Strengthen Countermeasures Against Rumors and the Fading of Memories Concerning Fukushima Prefecture]’, accessed 27 February 2019, https://www.pref.fukushima.lg.jp/sec/01010d/senryaku-sakutei.html.
69 In the post-Fukushima discourse, the term fūhyōhigai (風評被害), damage through rumours, was often utilized by the Japanese government to justify their engineering and withholding of information about the degree of radioactive contamination. See, for instance, Katsuya Hirano and Hirotaka Kaisai, ‘The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster is a Serious Crime: Interview with Koide Hiroaki 福島核災害は明らかに深刻な犯罪である—小出裕章氏に聞く’, The Asia-Pacific Journal | Japan Focus 14:6, accessed 27 July 2020, https://apjjf.org/2016/06/Hirano.html.
70 Tanaka, Apocalypse, p. 2.
71 A series of interviews with the Suzukis inspired Sono for his film Land of Hope, as the demarcation of the exclusion zone ran right through the front yard of the couple’s house. Sōno, 園子温作品集 ひそひそ星 Sono Shion Sakuhinshū Hiso Hiso Boshi [Sono Shion Collection of Works The Whispering Star], p. 58.
72 Chim↑Pom, ‘Sono Shion Solo Exhibition “Whispering Star”’, 日本の芸術家Chim↑Pomのオフィシャルサイト, accessed 15 September 2020, http://chimpom.jp/artistrunspace/sonosion-en.html.
73 The original Japanese is ‘Boku wa mou koko ni hainai [ぼくはもうここにはいない]’.
74 Sono, 園子温作品集 ひそひそ星 Sono Shion Sakuhinshū Hiso Hiso Boshi [Sono Shion Collection of Works The Whispering Star], p. 117.
75 Sono, 園子温作品集 ひそひそ星 Sono Shion Sakuhinshū Hiso Hiso Boshi [Sono Shion Collection of Works The Whispering Star], p. 125.
76 See for instance Hara Takahashi, ‘The Ghosts of Tsunami Dead and Kokoro No Kea in Japan’s Religious Landscape’, Journal of Religion in Japan 5, pp. 2-3 (2016), https://doi.org/10.1163/22118349-00502002.
77 Tok Thompson, ‘Ghost Stories from the Uncanny Valley: Androids, Souls, and the Future of Being Haunted’, Western Folklore: The Journal of the Western Folklore Society 78: 1 (Winter 2019): p. 45.
78 For the problematic implications of the conceptualization of an ongoing post-3/11 victimhood see Ryo Morimoto, ‘Ethnographic Lettering: “Pursed Lips: A Call to Suspend Damage in the Age of Decommissioning”’. criticalasianstudies.org Commentary Board, 22 March 2021, accessed 23 November 2021, https://doi.org/10.52698/ASPR7364.
79 The Japanese government tried to counteract this through promoting the consumption of Fukushima foodstuff via television advertisments. See Masami Yuki, ‘Post-Fukushima Discourses on Food and Eating: Analysing Political Implications and Literary Imagination’, in Lisette Gebhardt and Masami Yuki (eds.), Literature and Art After “Fukushima”, pp. 37–52.
80 ‘Groundless Rumors Add to Burdens of Fukushima Evacuees’, The Daily Yomiuri, April 22, 2011, accessed 4 November 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20120609011617/https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T110421006295.htm.
81The original Japanese is ‘Koko wa, kono yo na no ka ano yo na no ka [ここは、この世なのかあの世なのか]’.
82 Noi Sawaragi, ‘Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 57: A Restatement: The Art of “Ground Zero” (Part 24) Sion Sono and Hiso Hiso Boshi (The Whispering Star) (2)’, Art it, 29 June 2016, accessed 4 November 2021, https://www.art-it.asia/en/u/admin_ed_contri9/yhduqjyxpcswflmkdhzw.
83 Tanaka, Apocalypse, p. 4.
84 Jennifer Robertson, Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2018), p. 15.
85 On the myth of the harmonious coexistence of the Japanese with nature see for instance Aike P. Rots, Shinto, Nature and Ideology in Contemporary Japan: Making Sacred Forests (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
86 See for instance Brett L. Walker, The Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010).
87 Robertson, Robo Sapiens Japanicus, p. 15.

DOI: 10.33999/2022.87