A Restatement: The Art of ‘Ground Zero’ (Part 23)
Sion Sono and Hiso hiso boshi (The Whispering Star) (1)
Scene from The Whispering Star, written, produced and directed by Sion Sono. Starring Megumi Kagurazaka, Kenji Endo, Yuto Ikeda, and residents of Namie-machi, Tomioka-machi and Soma, Fukushima. © Sion Production
In the mind of Sion Sono, “hiso-hiso” (an onomatopoeic term corresponding to a “whisper”) is a sound that forms a counterpart to “ga-ga-ga” (an onomatopoeic term corresponding to a “squawk”). In the early 1990s, Sono, who started out as a poet, became dissatisfied with simply publishing his poems in print and reciting them behind closed doors, and resorted to the use of force (I hesitate to use the term “performance”) by appearing unannounced on the street and gathering people around him to form a group that shouted “ga-ga-ga.” This was Tokyo Ga Ga Ga. It was before the Tokyo subway sarin attack, at a time when the very word “terrorism” still had an unfamiliar sound to it. It was a far cry from today’s surveillance society, and the number of artists who used the street as a platform was considerably greater than it is today. In fact, even if one engaged in slightly suspicious activities, though one was bound to be shunned, one would not be reported to the police except on extraordinary occasions. Exhibits in art museums consisted mainly of paintings and sculptures, and institutional platforms for other forms of expression scarcely existed. That many of the ground-breaking ventures undertaken at this time by artists seeking to break free from the established frameworks occurred on the street was also in fact due to the existence of these favorable circumstances. Only in most cases they were undertaken by one person or at the most a few people. Because not only did this make it easy to organize, but if an emergency arose it was also easy to pack up and leave.
“Tokyo Ga Ga Ga” was staged in 1992 and 1993 in Tokyo’s Shibuya and Shinjuku districts. The sign above the crosswalk reads “From here on there will be no left or right, no upper or lower, Tokyo Ga Ga Ga.” Photo courtesy Sion Production
However, what set Sono apart from these other artists is that he staged his events as a group. Of course, when it comes to simply appearing in the street as a group, there are precedents like Zero Jigen’s “rituals” performed on the main street in Shinjuku and elsewhere by Yoshihiro Kato and others during the lead-up to Expo ’70 in Osaka. Before this, as early as the 1950s a group of artists calling themselves the “Kyushu-ha” took to the streets. And going back even further, the “barracks art” activities that flourished in the immediate aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 could also be regarded as part of this tradition. So it is not as if in terms of the activities themselves there are no precedents to speak of. As well, altering the criteria for the comparison slightly, on the face of it Tokyo Ga Ga Ga is very similar to the anti-war demonstrations (parades) staged by members of the younger generation in Japan and elsewhere around the time of the Iraq War. However, what was particularly astonishing about Sono’s Ga Ga Ga when compared to these other examples was that there were no demands whatsoever. Whether it was Zero Jigen or the Kyushu-ha, even though it may not have been clear, there was some kind of statement of protest against the times associated with their actions, which were also concrete expressions of resistance. The same thing could probably be said of the street party-style demonstrations with sound systems that have taken place in Japan since 2003. However, Sono’s ventures were first and foremost expressions of the crude sound “ga-ga-ga.”
“Tokyo Ga Ga Ga.” Photo courtesy Sion Production
In this sense, they are also different from “The Ginburart,” an event undertaken just a short time later by a group of artists including Masato Nakamura using the streets of Ginza, which are turned into a pedestrian precinct on Sundays. While it was agreed that all those involved would use this pedestrian precinct to exhibit their work, as a whole the diversity of expression among the various individuals was considered of greater importance. In contrast to this, in the case of Tokyo Ga Ga Ga, it was clearly spelt out through the use of banners and so on that it was a group action, and if anything the faces of the individual participants receded behind the loud “ga-ga-ga” noise and the Dadaistic typeface. That being the case, though I suggested above that Tokyo Ga Ga Ga “resembled a demonstration but without any concrete demands,” it may be more accurate to describe it as “a demonstration (manifestation) with no demands other than ga-ga-ga.”
Meanwhile, this does not alter the fact that “hiso-hiso” is also a sound that came into Sono’s head around the same time. But whereas the Tokyo in front of us was understandably chosen as the location where “ga-ga-ga” resounded, the place where “hiso-hiso” is whispered is linked to “another place in another time,” or in other words a “star” (“The Whispering Star”). Because it is something that happens in a far away galaxy, it goes without saying that it does not occur immediately in front of us like “ga-ga-ga.” So while on the one hand Sono ventured onto the street armed only with “ga-ga-ga,” on the other he shut himself away in his apartment for “hiso-hiso,” producing a 555-page storyboard for a project that might never be realized and sealing it until the time was ripe. And now, 25 years later, “hiso-hiso” has at last been made into a film, entitled Hiso Hiso Boshi (The Whispering Star).
Scene from The Whispering Star.
The Whispering Star is set on a number of lonely planets each separated from the others by an incredible distance. The protagonist, a feminine android, spends her time traveling around these planets on her own aboard an anachronistic spaceship that calls to mind a Japanese houseboat. Her only companion is an artificial intelligence capable of speech that features a design reminiscent of an old-fashioned radio, yet despite this she never seems particularly lonely. This is because she is an artificial human preprogrammed to undertake a given mission. And what is this mission? Though it is not clearly explained in the film, it would appear that the people living apart on the separate planets were once inhabitants of the same planet, ie, Earth. However, they were assailed time and time again by major disasters, in addition to which they implemented a series of irreversible foolish plans, resulting in a decline in the human population and forcing them to disperse and move to separate planets. The feminine android has been given the task of delivering directly to these inhabitants who have sought refuge on separate planets (ie, evacuees) items invested with fragments of nostalgic memories of the places where they once lived (which to those with no connection to these places mostly seem to consist of worthless trash or junk). In other words, she operates a kind of door-to-door parcel delivery service in space.
Upon landing on each of the planets, she takes the yellow boxes that are sorted according to the planet’s residential districts and sets off on foot to the houses where the recipients live to deliver the items. And when the deliveries are finished she gathers together the stamps she has received as confirmation of the deliveries and sets off for the next planet. However, the places where the people live are no longer lively cities filled with loud ga-ga-ga sounds. On the contrary, because people may die if a noise louder than 30 decibels is made, as making loud noises is designated a crime. And so the people speak “in whispers.” As a result, the cities are deathly silent and the streets are completely devoid of their former liveliness.
That’s right, today, a quarter of a century after the ga-ga-ga era, hiso-hiso is on the verge of becoming a reality – not on a faraway planet, but here on Earth. Which is no doubt precisely why Sono changed the setting of the 555-page storyboard that was an impossibility back in the “today” of that time to the reality of the evacuation zone caused by radioactive contamination that has became a “town of death” in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear accident of March 11, 2011, turning it into The Whispering Star, a film that reflects the reality in front of our eyes.
Scene from The Whispering Star.
Here, there is an astonishing reversal and correspondence of time. As already mentioned, in the early 1990s Sono was on the one hand heading out into the street and shouting ga-ga-ga, while on the other sitting in a cramped, lonely, spaceship-like apartment clearly predicting, it would seem, that at some point in the future hiso-hiso would arrive on this planet. Because as a result of the earthquake and tsunami and nuclear accident we have truly become inhabitants of a “whispering star.” We have turned into a reality the sound of words that would have been unimaginable in the ga-ga-ga days, words like “difficult-to-return zone,” “restricted residence zone” and “zone in preparation for the lifting of the evacuation order.” And in fact these words are not proud words that can be uttered in such a loud voice. So that when these words are spoken the speaker has to lower their voice to a “whisper.” But it is not simply a question of lowering one’s voice. The places where these words are whispered are deathly silent the whole day, almost as if they were another planet, and the only inhabitants are all males, assigned the special duty of working on decontamination, who cover their mouths with masks and carry out their work silently without saying a word.
But it is not just inside the evacuation zone. Though it is true there is no change in its liveliness on the surface, present-day Tokyo, too, has completely transformed compared to how it once was. In a world in which people are fearful of “conflagrations” in which they could be attacked at any moment with no idea of the reason or from which direction the attack might come, and are careful about what they say everyday, and in which sieverts are more popular than decibels, they live with bated breath, “whispering” even on the inside, slaves to silent social media. (To be continued)
The Whispering Star, written, produced and directed by Sion Sono opens May 15 at theatres throughout Japan.