(Although Alexander Sokurov's The Sun (2004) has made the rounds at a handful of North American film festivals, it is only now receiving a far overdue short run in NYC. It came out on DVD in the UK over three years ago and, by converting my hard earned dollars into expensive British pounds, I had the opportunity to see this film at that time. In preparation to review the film for In Review Online, I recently rewatched The Sun (about the exonerated Japanese Emperor Hirohito) coincidentally coinciding with the closing arguments in the trial of Kaing Guek Eav. Better known as Comrade Duch, he ran the Khmer Rouge's horrific Tuol Sleng prison where thousands died and thousands more were tortured. The specifics of Hirohito and Duch's cases are not comparable for many reasons, but I couldn't help thinking about Hirohito when I listened to Duch docile testimony before the court. Hirohito ambiguous complicity in the film will be felt more by some than by others, but is, without a doubt a looming cloud over the sublime The Sun.)
Few films can boast agile simplicity in the same breath as opulent complexity, but it is something Alexander Sokurov has a knack for and it comes to a full crescendo in his film The Sun. Sokurov, best known for his one shot wonder Russian Ark, draws an intimate portrait of controversial an eccentric Emperor Hirohito in the waning days of World War II. Emperor Hirohito (more accurately referred to as Emperor Showa) reigned longer than any other Japanese emperor and did so during what was arguably the most tumultuous time in Japanese history, with WWII right at the heart of it. His dubious involvement in decision-making before and during the War is still a matter that is hotly debated. The fact that the Hirohito emerges from the War relatively unscathed due to His Majesty the Emperor’s cunning adaptability is a trait that Sokurov seizes upon with ironic sympathy. Illusively caught between guilt and innocence, Emperor Hirohito’s complicity is a puzzle that not only troubled MacArthur and the Allies, but also continues to draw contention in almost every corner of the discussion today.
The third film in Sokurov’s trilogy 'on the corrupting effects of power' (Moloch on Hitler and Taurus on Lenin being the first and second), the film’s title alludes to the mythology that the Emperor is a descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Situated in those few days between the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the eventual surrender speech by the Emperor, The Sun vividly portrays the pensive Emperor’s fall from grace within the peaceful eye of the storm. Equal parts speculation and documented fact, the film stays sequestered with the Emperor in his palace as he is given the luxury analyze defeat through fanciful means of botany and poetry. Over the 110-minute duration of the film, the steady hand that holds imperial tradition slowly falls away as the end of the War (and Hirohito’s circumstantial transformation from god to man) becomes nothing less than inevitable. After being ceremoniously served breakfast down in his bunker, the Emperor is presented with his leisurely daily schedule. In a response that is neither bitter nor anxious but tinged with sarcastic humor, Hirohito says, “And if the Americans should show up here, what will happen to the day’s schedule? Will you make some changes, or leave it as it is?” The servants shrink from his question. The Americans do show up, of course, and Hirohito’s schedule was changed in the course of Japanese history. In a series of meetings with General MacArthur that were instrumental in Hirohito’s exoneration, Hirohito approaches the task of defeat with the seriousness of an intellectual but a curiosity of a child.
In a reality where an individual need not think about such perfunctory things as buttoning a shirt or opening a door, Sokurov postulates the resulting personality born into Hirohito—one with little or no connection to hardship, let alone war or the fervent patriotism and mass destruction that the entire population of Japan was toiling with. Sokurov takes license to imagine how Hirohito’s protected intellect would distill the violence of the fire-bombings of Tokyo into a vision of fantasy where flying fish inhabit the blaze-ridden airspace as bombers. The nightmare serves as a compare and contrast with a later scene where Hirohito is escorted by car to his first meeting with MacArthur through the heart of bombed out Tokyo that is almost as surreal as Hirohito’s dream.
Sokurov is less interested in history than it is the context, both past and present, of the central character. In more of a study than a critique, The Sun has the audacity to feign judgment of Hirohito (normally characterized as demon or puppet), and allows Hirohito to make his argument, quite literally, that he is human like everyone else. Stage actor Issey Ogata, who plays Hirohito, has the impossible task of portraying a man caught physically and emotionally in a realm that is not occupied by mere mortals. His portrayal of the Emperor is laden with oddities and ticks that are so strange that have to be based in fact. His mouth twitches and purses almost obscenely and he caries himself in such a way that makes him seem almost otherworldly. Ogata’s performance may be one of the most sublime physical feats ever to be put to film. The quiet moments where people patiently wait for the Emperor speak or finish a thought under the eerie auspices of Ogata’s guise and Andrey Sigle’s sound design—which alternates between sounding like cicadas, white noise, and strings—creates an undulating tension with little or no release.
The Sun is an uncharacteristic look at a historical juggernaut that uses contradictions to cast an idiosyncratic spell. Taking its substance from the dimly lit inertia of a bunker, the film builds a world of mysterious ambiguities where a man can be a god and a demon and a human. Sokurov works as both director and cinematographer and gives The Sun a bleached out antiquity that visually accentuates the dimness of the interiors as well as the searing light of sun. Near the end of the film, it seems as though Sokurov is going to allow for a finale with a small note of tenderness. Empress Kojun joins Emperor Hirohito shortly after his unconditional surrender of Japan’s military forces. The Emperor immediately relaxes in the presence of his wife, a person who understands him and the unpredictable situation, and the two share the film’s only warm recognition of joy and sadness. Just as quickly however, this ‘happy ending’ comes to a close when it is revealed that the man who taped the Emperor’s surrender speech has committed suicide under the shame of defeat. This is the where the film depressively sinks to a brilliant non-conformist end with innuendos lingering on the faces of the Emperor, Empress and servant like an albatross of an unknown future.