The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Sun

Aleksandr Sokurov 2005

Like Oliver Hirschbiegl's 2004 film Downfall, with which it would make an interesting double bill, The Sun features a remarkable central performance depicting an earthly god in twilight. Unlike Bruno Ganz' Hitler, however, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, as played by Issei Ogata, retains enough humanity (and, perhaps, calculated opportunism) to forego his divine status and remain as a symbol of continuity for his people while conveniently averting trial as a war criminal.

Hirschbiegl's film is realistically shot and resolutely clear-eyed, allowing the unreality of life in the bunker to emerge through the action and the dialogue - the latter typified early on by Himmler's confessed dilemma: when he surrenders to the Americans, should he greet them with a conventional military salute or with a Sieg Heil? By contrast, the weirdness of Sokurov's film extends into its visual style, the scenes in Hirohito's bunker suffused with sepia murk, while the few outdoor scenes look over-bright yet oddly unfocussed, as though the sun god from whom Hirohito claimed descent were one of the flashbulbs belonging to the mob of American photographers who, at one point, obtrude themselves noisily upon the top-hatted Emperor's Chaplinesque dignity.

There is one overt flash of fantasy, in the form of a mad dream-sequence wherein Hirohito sees his country devastated by squadrons of monstrous flying fish; but for the most part Sokurov mesmerises with the minutiae of the Emperor's daily routine: being dressed by his servants, responding with otherworldly pomposity to the empty rhetoric of his war cabinet, holding forth in his marine laboratory about the wonders of an interesting species of crab and displaying the only sign of irritation he shows in the entire film when an exhausted underling dozes off while transcribing his soporific insights. Between edgily polite interviews with General Macarthur (Robert Dawson), who alternates between annoyance and bemusement at the Emperor's seemingly supra-Oriental detachment, Hirohito waits quietly twitching in his bunker, endlessly re-drafting an epigrammatic poem and discussing his grandfather's supposed sighting of the aurora borealis with a trembling, stammering scientist who accepts one of the Hershey bars Macarthur has sent the Emperor with the reverent trepidation of a man accepting a lightning bolt from Zeus.

The more emotional scenes, as when Hirohito examines a photograph album containing pictures of his family (and also of Hitler and Hindenburg, his European parallels in calamity and outdatedness respectively) or starts a letter to his son in which he promises at last to discuss Japan's catastrophe frankly, are all the more touching both for the restraint with which they are played and the atmosphere of mundane yet appalling absurdity which pervades the whole film. The final scene, immediately after Hirohito has made his famous broadcast renouncing his godhead, is genuinely and remarkably moving, showing in rapid succession his ludicrous, almost inexpressible sense of relief, his childlike dependence on others and the awful yet helpless responsibility of his office.


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