Aleksandr Sokurov’s staggering and brilliant The Sun casts the Japanese emperor Hirohito (Issey Ogata) as a sort of Christ figure wandering his very own Via Dolorosa on August 15th, 1945, the day he surrendered to Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson) and effectively ended Japan’s involvement in World War II. Shot on low-lit digital video and transferred to film, The Sun maintains Sokurov’s obsession with sepia-toned imagery, burnished by a near-subliminal sound design mix of classical music, radio static, and a hollow, incessant hum emanating from and echoing off of the walls in Hirohito’s underground bunker. A colleague expressed a desire to see Sokurov try his hand at a horror movie; I’d offer that between this film and Moloch (the previous entry in Sokurov’s stated tetralogy that also includes Taurus and an upcoming adaptation of Göethe’s Faust) the director’s made his fair share. Where Moloch’s Adolf Hitler was a selfishly larger-than-life figure lost in a labyrinth of lofty aspirations, Hirohito in The Sun is a man trying desperately, though honorably, to avoid an inevitable turn of the tide.
Sokurov details the emperor’s rituals in exacting detail, following him from room to room as he dresses with the help of a perpetually fearful and sweaty manservant, meets with his advisors, and indulges in his hobby of studying marine biology. Following a more or less linear, present tense path in these early scenes (punctuated, every now and again, by quick lap dissolves that subtly increase the sense of dislocation and paranoia), Sokurov eventually confronts his Hirohito with the past atrocities suffered by the Japanese people. Asked early on to recall a significant event in Japan’s history, Hirohito pleads ignorance. The memory is later unlocked during the marine biology interlude when the emperor plays a subconscious and unintentional game of word association. Sokurov shows how a man’s hobbies and rituals define his view of the world; from hereon, Hirohito becomes obsessed with a past that is quickly catching up to him and with which he must make some kind of peace. In a superb sequence of digital artistry, Sokurov visualizes the emperor’s waking nightmare as a computer-generated firebombing of Japanese cities by dragon-like sea creatures. It illustrates Hirohito’s general ignorance of his opponents—as befits his supposedly divine lineage, the emperor is a god viewing his enemies as mythical beasts from hell.
When the Americans finally do arrive to collect the emperor, he moves forward with an awkward uncertainty, as if underneath his social politeness he knows this could very well be his death march. As portrayed by Issey Ogata, Hirohito’s physical motions bear a striking resemblance to Charlie Chaplin’s shuffling gait (more than once in the film is he compared to the Tramp by his American captors), though he masks it in the aristocratic stiffness of a black-tie bureaucrat. The American soldiers are boorish wisecrackers (a seeming flaw until one considers that the film is told entirely from Hirohito’s point of view, a journey from ignorance to awareness), but this all changes when Hirohito comes face to face with MacArthur. Their two sequences together play as a sublime clash of personalities, MacArthur’s gruff American arrogance bouncing off of Hirohito’s befuddled Japanese introversions. It soon becomes clear that each character is contemplating the other, much as the emperor earlier studied his piscine alien life forms. When Hirohito speaks accusatorily of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, MacArthur invokes Pearl Harbor as a rejoinder; only after the primal emotions have faded do both men acknowledge that neither directly gave orders for those operations. It’s a moment where two historical figureheads recognize the limitations of their power and it’s likewise the first step for Hirohito toward a climactic renouncement of his culturally-sanctioned divinity, chillingly sealed for all future generations with a Faustian “kiss” of cigars.