Ja­panese arc

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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

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