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Thursday, Aug. 3, 2006

Shaping Hirohito on film

Flick on Emperor one of few daring to explore the life of wartime leader

Special to The Japan Times

As demonstrated by the recent controversy over comments he made in 1988 concerning his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Japan still doesn't know what to make of Hirohito 17 years after his death and more than 60 years after he was demoted to a mere mortal.

News photo
Issey Ogata plays the role of Showa Emperor in "The Sun."

The controversy could intensify this weekend when Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov's "The Sun (Taiyo)," an intimate portrait of late Emperor Showa, opens in Tokyo and Nagoya. Though any movie about Japan from a foreign director automatically attracts attention here, "The Sun" may be too hot to handle, especially since it opens a day before the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Two small distributors are releasing the film after it was passed over by Japan's major film companies, though one distributor told The Japan Times that this may have had more to do with the asking price for the film than with its subject.

Still, the subject remains a difficult one, especially at the moment. After the Nihon Keizai Shimbun published an old memo several weeks ago quoting Hirohito as saying that he stopped visiting Japan's shrine to its war dead when it decided to enshrine 14 men tried for Class-A war crimes by the Tokyo Tribunal, someone lobbed a Molotov cocktail at the newspaper's entrance. Responding to the memo, famous reactionary cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi said in the July 31 issue of the weekly news magazine Aera that he reveres the Imperial system but is not interested in the Emperor's private opinions. Some media outlets have conjectured that the memo was leaked to put Liberal Democratic Party bigwigs like Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe on the spot, since they support paying tribute at Yasukuni. Aera floated the theory that the Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren) was behind the leak because the visits anger China and South Korea, who are important trading partners.

What angers many rightwingers is exactly this sort of attempt to score political points with the late Emperor. Whether or not they still consider him divine, they believe he stands outside of everyday human concerns. This is still the heart of the controversy. Hirohito was turned from a god into "a symbol of the State" by the postwar Constitution, but what exactly does he symbolize?

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Embracing Defeat," John Dower documented how Hirohito was absolved of his responsibility for The Pacific War and allowed to remain on the throne because he was considered useful to the Americans' plans for Japan. The Emperor's postwar reputation is that of a man who was either deceived by his military or didn't have the will to rein in its expansionist designs. Authors Herbert P. Bix in "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan" and Edward Behr in "Hirohito: Behind the Myth" have challenged this orthodoxy, saying that the Emperor was very much involved in the planning and execution of the war.

Consequently, reservations about representing Hirohito in dramatic works may have less to do with leftover sentiments regarding his status as a god than with this public relations effort to shape him for history as a man of peace. For that reason, the theatrical release of "The Sun," in which the Emperor disavows his divinity and throws himself on the mercy of U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, is significant.

Obviously, taboos remain. Issey Ogata, the actor who portrays Hirohito, told Britain's The Independent newspaper earlier this year that his identity was kept secret during shooting to protect him from Emperor-worshippers. In the movie, Hirohito is not only less than divine, he's portrayed as something of a ridiculous man. But the real taboo-buster is the choice of actor. Ogata is a comedian, a caricaturist. He made his name impersonating familiar Japanese types in monologues on stage. His Hirohito is also a caricature, a set of tics and mannerisms that add up to a dramatic persona. According to one of the local distributors, Slow Learner, the Tokyo theater that decided to run the film has received telephone calls from people who complain that "Ogata is not Hirohito."

It should be noted that the Emperor has been portrayed in Japanese dramatizations before, but almost always by members of Japan's traditional theater world, which, like the Imperial system itself, is dynastic. The first person ever to play Hirohito on the screen was kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro IX in the 1967 film "Japan's Longest Day." Koshiro's son, Ichikawa Someguro VII (now Matsumoto Koshiro X), also played Hirohito, in a 1990 TV movie called "The Emperor's Baseball Team," thus reinforcing the dynastic subtext. Ichimura Manjiro II, an onnagata (kabuki actor who specializes in female roles), made a kind of cottage industry out of the late Emperor, playing him three times.

Even non-Japanese filmmakers have followed this unwritten prescription. The noh performer Umekawa Naohiko played Hirohito in the 1995 Canadian mini-series "Hiroshima"; and who can forget kabuki scion Nakamura Shichinosuke as Hirohito's grandfather, the wide-eyed, English-spouting Emperor Meiji in "The Last Samurai"?

Film scholar Donald Richie thinks the reason kabuki and noh actors are acceptable is that "they stand for probity and dignity," which also explains why they don't have to act. Like the Emperor, these thespians are symbols. In "Japan's Longest Day," Matsumoto is filmed either in long-shot or from behind, and though he has lines, they are presented in a dry, declamatory fashion.

Last summer, an anonymous Japanese actor portrayed Hirohito in the TV Tokyo docudrama "Seidan (Imperial Decision)." This man looked nothing like Hirohito -- he was quite dashing, in fact -- and the performance was as wooden as a picnic table. But the reason the actor's name does not appear in the credits may have less to do with the character he played than with the drama's message. "Seidan" examines the same subject as "Japan's Longest Day," in which Hirohito accepts the Allies' terms of unconditional surrender in order to save his subjects. The central figure of that film is War Minister Korechika Anami, played by Toshiro Mifune, who plots a coup in order to continue fighting. The coup fails and Anami commits suicide. The implication is that the Emperor courageously bucked his Cabinet and his generals to end the war. But "Seidan" provides enough background to raise questions as to why Hirohito did not surrender earlier, before tens of thousands of Japanese were killed in the invasion of Okinawa and bombings of the mainland. The docudrama supports the theory that a key obstacle to ending the war sooner was the government's belief that it could negotiate for the continuation of the Imperial system. The drama implied that Hirohito went along with this plan until it was obvious it wouldn't succeed.

Nevertheless, the Allied Occupation authority was as responsible for maintaining the taboo against representing Hirohito as the Japanese were. In his book, Dower discusses "The Tragedy of Japan," a 1946 documentary by Fumio Kamei that presented a "scathing analysis of the ruling class forces that had led Japan into an aggressive and disastrous war." Kamei did not spare Hirohito in his analysis. General Headquarters banned "The Tragedy of Japan," saying its portrayal of the Emperor might provoke unrest, though Dower implies that the real reason was that the Americans thought it might fuel leftwing activism.

One can't help but wonder what Japan might be like today had the Americans encouraged works like Kamei's. Instead, they embarked on a PR mission to bring the Emperor closer to the people without diminishing his symbolic authority. News footage of Hirohito in a plain suit and hat touring the devastated nation was central to this mission and certainly had a humanizing effect. But if Hirohito was no longer a god, he was still presented as a person of extreme privilege who was separated from the lives of his subjects by a huge gulf of experience.

That may be his enduring legacy, and Sokurov conveys it well. Hirohito possessed no extraordinary qualities but was nevertheless invested with extraordinary symbolic meaning his whole life. And symbols have an unfortunate tendency to get in the way of the truth.

"The Sun" screens at Ginza Cine Pathos (03) 3561-4660 in Tokyo and at Cinema Skhole in Nagoya (052) 452-6036 from Aug. 5, and at Dai Nana Geijutsu Gekijo (06) 6302-2073 in Osaka from Sept. 23.

Read the film review
Casting 'The Sun' in a warm light

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