The Sun, drama, not rated, in English and Japanese with subtitles, CCA Cinematheque, 3 chiles
I“It seems that everything is leading to a situation where the very last Japanese may be myself,” sighs Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata) in one of The Sun’s early scenes. This seems plausible. The curtain is closing on World War II. His cities have been ravaged by firebombs and nuclear weapons. Yet he lives a quiet life deep in a bunker, calmly dining in front of his servants and planning a day that includes time for “private thought.” As emperor, he is considered a god, but it is soon time for him to accept his mortal flesh. He is a setting sun in the land of the rising sun.
With this 2005 film, Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov ( Russian Ark) concluded his trilogy of films about dictators, having already covered Hitler (1999’s Moloch) and Lenin (2001’s Taurus). Some viewers, however, may prefer to regard The Sun as a companion piece to the more widely seen Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 depiction of Hitler’s final days. While that film had a dramatic, big-budget approach to the end of the war, The Sun is more of a curio piece. It almost resembles a stage play and often reminded me, in terms of look
and feel, of the dramas crafted by the BBC during the 1980s.
Sokurov guides the film with one foot in history and one in the realm of his own imagination, presenting a character study of a most unusual man during an unstated length of time. He presents Hirohito as someone who is out of step with reality, seemingly unaware of the impossible burden of responsibility on his shoulders. Ogata portrays him beautifully as equal parts Buddhist monk and obsessive compulsive, gazing off with placid eyes yet constantly fidgeting with his hands and moving his mouth like there is something important on the edge of his tongue that he just can’t say.
Despite the fact that The Sun takes place during an important chapter in world history, there isn’t a strong thread of plot to pull you through the story. It’s more about observing this character. Hirohito has an interest in marine biology, and in a lengthy scene, he examines a crab in a laboratory, dictating notes on its appearance to an assistant. Such is Hirohito’s life. Wherever he goes, people regard him from windows and from the cracks in the doors, closely watching his behavior and the behavior of those around him. Sokurov invites us to do the same.
Hirohito’s routine is broken when the Americans arrive, and in particular, when Gen. MacArthur (Robert Dawson) comes to see him. The meetings between these two great men, who are bound to their egos and quietly bemused by each other, serve as the movie’s centerpiece scenes. Dawson underplays MacArthur, I suspect, and the resulting discussions between the men boil down to questions with loaded meanings and gestures heavy with subtext. It’s a circular conversation. Like the movie itself, these scenes drift away, unresolved.
Sokurov also served as cinematographer and gives the film an unusual appearance, one that is vaguely similar to sepia tones or washed-out pastels. He eschews the usual left, right, and center approach to visual storytelling and positions his characters in places in the frame that we’re not used to seeing people — at the very bottom, for example. One moment the movie might look as if it were shot with cheap video equipment on a soundstage, and the next minute it might offer a massive special-effects shot of a ruined city. Scenes often change with quick dissolves rather than clean cuts, giving the movie the feel of a soap opera.
Though the film is clearly not a comedy, it occasionally smudges the line between comedy, drama, and performance art. When Hirohito goes out to his front lawn for a photo opportunity for the American military press, the journalists remark that he looks like Charlie Chaplin. And, although Hirohito bears no physical resemblance to Chaplin, we understand how they made the connection. The emperor keeps pictures of Chaplin and is flattered by the comparison. He clowns for the cameras in the style of the Tramp. The farcical nature of the scene goes up a notch when the Americans gleefully shout “Charlie!” at him, appalling the other Japanese men present.
Hirohito wasn’t far off with his comment about being the last Japanese alive, at least as far as a certain element of Japanese culture went. His reign generally represented the end of Japan’s long era as an aggressor in the world. Don’t expect Sokurov to weigh in on that, though. He’s more interested in making a movie that defies any explanation but constantly engages its audience. At the risk of giving a backhanded compliment, I kept thinking that this movie should be a lot duller than it is. But frankly, I like a movie that I can examine like a crab in a petri dish, gently prodding it and trying to figure out just what exactly it is.
The lost emperor: Issei Ogata
Turning a corner: left, Issei Ogata