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Thursday, Aug. 3, 2006

Casting 'The Sun' in a warm light

With "The Sun (Taiyo)," Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov dares to do what no Japanese director could ever dream of: create a cinematic portrait of Emperor Hirohito in 1945 on the verge of Japan's surrender in World War II. The film is somewhat of a paradox; on the one hand, it's a landmark, broaching a subject that remains positively taboo in Japan, and on the other, it's a missed opportunity, given how it skirts around the major question regarding the Showa Emperor: How much responsibility did he bear for the war?

The Sun Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
A scene from the film depicts Hirohito with his wife, Empress Nagako.

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: English
Begins Aug. 5 (Aug. 3, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Sokurov has created this film as the last in a trilogy looking at the great despots of the 20th century. "Moloch" (1999) looked at Adolf Hitler's inner circle, particularly the dictator's relationship with Eva Braun, while "Taurus" (2000) was an acerbic portrait of Vladimir Lenin's last, wheelchair-bound days. Judging from the fact that both Hitler and Lenin were brutal, ideologically driven leaders, with no disinclination toward the use of killing for political ends, it's easy to think Sokurov would have portrayed Hirohito in a similar way. That's not the case, however, as he chooses to view Japan's Emperor in a more generous light. "The Sun" depicts Hirohito as some sort of hapless innocent, what one reviewer so aptly described as "a kind of Japanese Chance the Gardener" (Peter Sellers' role in "Being There").

Issey Ogata ("A One and a Two . . .," "Tony Takatani") is the actor tasked with playing Hirohito, and while many actors would no doubt go with a safe and sanitized heroic version of the man, Ogata is unafraid to show all of Hirohito's idiosyncrasies. He captures the awkward, high-pitched voice perfectly, and also the Emperor's famed twitchiness, which Ogata puts into a disconcerting nervous tic in his lips. There were also laughs of recognition in the audience every time he delivered the Emperor's trademark expression, "Ah, so." Ogata also manages to humanize the Emperor, showing him as a man trapped by the duties of state, while his heart lay elsewhere.

"The Sun" follows Hirohito in an incidental way; it spends as much time watching him getting dressed by his butler as on his historic meeting with the commander of the occupation forces, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson.) Like most Euro-art cinema these days, it displays as much interest in the mundane as the exceptional; the opposite approach to a Hollywood bio-pic, which is nothing but great moments. Aside from meetings with his Cabinet, the film shows Hirohito taking breakfast in his bunker, composing waka poetry, working in his lab, thumbing through photos of Hollywood stars, and posing for a photo shoot with American photographers -- one of the film's funnier moments in its juxtaposition of Imperial stodginess and American informality.

Yet the Emperor's historic radio address -- in which he renounced his divinity -- is relegated to the credits after the film's final scene; it plays out in voiceover, sounding very far away, lost amid the cello and bells of the soundtrack. Thus the film refuses to engage the most dramatic moment in its material.

It's hard to tell how many of these scenes are based on fact and how many are inspired imaginings. Given the secrecy surrounding the Imperial household -- and, for Hirohito, the threat of war crimes trials meant that much of his life in this period remains deliberately obscured -- Sokurov certainly had a challenge on his hands in doing his research. Perhaps the best approach might have been a "Rashomon"-like movie, full of conflicting and limited viewpoints. Instead, Sokurov chooses to give us many scenes devoid of a viewpoint, leaving it to the viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Typical is a scene where Hirohito emerges from his bunker to visit his laboratory, still intact despite American bombing, where he conducts research into crustaceans. We watch him don a white lab coat and immerse himself in the dissection of a shellfish, while air-raid sirens sound in the distance. The first impression here is of Nero fiddling while Rome burns, the arrogance of a leader putting off the decision to surrender while his countrymen continue to suffer. But another way of looking at that same scene is to see a man who's more interested in science than war, who even in the midst of chaos finds a way to keep himself controlled and sane. Which view you take largely depends on who you read for your history; Sokurov, apparently, is not a fan of Herbert P. Bix, who argued persuasively that Hirohito was extensively involved in the details of war planning, and criminally delayed the nation's surrender to preserve his throne. Sokurov has the Emperor telling MacArthur how "Pearl Harbor was ordered without me," and "I was unable to stop the people's will to war."

This seems to indicate a certain view of history, namely, the mainstream one that Hirohito was a pawn in the hands of militarists. Yet Sokurov, who grew up in the bad old USSR where all art was subservient to ideology, claims the freedom to ignore politics in his films. And, it's true, in all his "dictator" films, he emphasizes the personal, the human frailties, more than the deeds. But this only goes so far. Sokurov has described "The Sun" as "not a political film. We all know what happened to Japan: Japan was very aggressive, invaded other countries and had to pay the price."

This is all well and good except we don't all know that: Resurgent nationalists here -- including many members of the ruling party and the governor of Tokyo himself -- say that Japan didn't invade anyone, they tried to "liberate" Asia. These same people are also quite insistent on making people sing the Emperor-worship anthem "Kimigayo," and are quite opposed to a female taking the throne -- the reason being that the Emperor's ancestry can be traced back through the male bloodline to supposedly divine origins. So Sokurov's dismissal of politics seems somewhat disingenuous, since so many people are actively trying to obscure and rewrite the history he covers in "The Sun."

On aesthetic grounds the film looks gorgeous, as Sokurov evokes Rembrandt in the film's indoor sequences, all muted browns and musty light shot with an immobile camera at medium range. Some may feel, though, that the film also plays like a painting, with its long, static takes, dreary color scheme, and soporific soundtrack of shortwave radio hum.

In the end, it's Ogata's magnificent performance that carries the film. He fully communicates the confusion the Emperor felt, whether in dealing with Americans or figuring out how to open a door by himself for the first time. Moreover, he also hints that Hirohito begins to understand that a world where he can open a door may be better than one where he can only order faraway armies to die in his name. In this way, Sokurov allows Hirohito, ever so subtly, to reassert his humanity over the abstraction of his existence as a living god.

See related story
Shaping Hirohito on film

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