The Sun (Solntse)

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  The Sun (Solntse)
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

The end of World Was II is drawing near. The Allies have landed in Japan and Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata) must face the prospect that his country is defeated. However, he still follows his daily schedule – meet with his military and political leaders, spend time on his marine research and hand write a letter to his son – even though he is about to be summoned by his new boss, General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson), in “The Sun.”

It has been five years since “The Sun” first saw light of day (pun intended) and is the third in his 20th Century examinations of powerful, perhaps evil, men. “Moloch (1999)” follows a three-day interlude with Adolph Hitler, Eva Braun, Joseph Goebbels and wife, Magda, and Martin Borman as they attempt to put the pressures of war behind them, at least for a while. “Tauras” covers two days in the life of an ailing Soviet leader Lenin as he laments the horrors that communism has rained upon his beloved Russia. With “The Sun,” Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov visits the little known story of Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata) and the last days of World War II through his eyes.

“The Sun” is a fabulous character study of a man who has been treated all of his life as a living god by the Japanese people but is about to undergo major changes in his heart and mind. The barbarians are now at the gate and there is little choice but to surrender following the devastating atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nonetheless, he faithfully follows the daily routine carefully laid out by his loyal chamberlain (Shiro Sano), including his marine research into the life and habits of the hermit crab. Amidst the strife of war, the Emperor maintains his familiar schedule as he prepares to meet his conqueror, MacArthur.

Being a WW2 history buff, I am very familiar with the closing days of the war in the Pacific. However, my history training has been through the eyes of western researchers and authors, so it is a real treat to get the viewpoint of the man-god, Hirohito. The study includes the decision the Emperor makes to declare himself just a man, of flesh and blood, like the rest of his people. This choice, though, is firmly rejected by his advisors whose belief in his divinity is irrevocable. The Emperor prevails to the point of accepting the summons to appear before the Supreme Commander of Occupied Japan, a humbling acceptance by the once-god.

Issei Ogata gives a subdued, textured performance of a man used to being at the pinnacle of power in Japan but has to accept his fate. It is a mannered depiction of Hirohito, his mouth always moving, as he copes with the coming changes to his and his peoples’ lives. Ogata keeps the film’s focus on his character but those around him add their own dimensions to “The Sun.” The serious tone of story, by Yuri Arabov and Jeremy Noble, is tempered, at times, by the charming comic relief by Shinmei Tsuji, the Emperor’s aged, totally loyal servant who dotes over his lord to often-amusing ends.

The director also serves as cinematographer and he captures some beautiful, simple scenes that evoke the emotions of Hirohito as he journeys out of the Imperial Palace, for the first time as Emperor, into the havoc and devastation that the war has brought upon his land. It is a sobering ride for the god about-to-be-made man. Sokurov depicts the meeting with MacArthur as much more amiable than western historians write and show the Emperor and General getting along as equals. My one complaint is that Robert Dawson, as MacArthur, is not the actor to play the megalomaniacal conqueror. The character should have carried his own imperial posture into the historic meeting. Other techs are superior, especially the subtle, underlying score by Andrey Sigle.

“The Sun” is a fine historical biography of man, little known to most of the world, but one who held the Pacific Rim and China in his hands – and almost won it – nearly 70 years ago. I give it an A.

It is 1945 and the Americans are in Tokyo.  Contemplating surrender, not only of his country but his divine status, is Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata, "Yi Yi," "Tony Takitani"), who is reminded by his chamberlain (Shirô Sano) that he is descended from a Goddess of "The Sun" (Solntse)

The third in his trilogy of WWII dictators, following "Moloch" (Hitler) and "Taurus" (Stalin), "The Sun" is an enthralling and moving portrait of the mysterious Hirohito, a man whose own people never heard his voice until a radio address after his controversial meeting with General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson).  Issei Ogata marks the emperor of Japan as a quiet lover of poetry and marine biology, a man who largely stayed within the walls of a country manse but who was not naive to the ways of the world.  The actor is constantly moving his mouth, as if reading aloud to himself even when he is not speaking.  When any subject refers to his divinity, the actor quietly pushes back.  It is a performance that engenders sympathy for a man who has been cast as both a puppet of his military leaders and one very much complicit in Japanese war crimes.  Director/cinematographer Aleksandr Sokurov ("Russian Ark") films the first half of his movie as if underwater, a sinking ship as it were, with slightly tilted angles, the sound of groaning metal, and staircases spiraling down to an underground bunker. Original music by Andrey Sigle ("Alexandra") is so low in the mix it at first sounds like a rumble.

The Westernized Hirohito is attended to by his tuxedo clad, white glove wearing chamberlain, who reels off the day's agenda, and an old servant (Shinmei Tsuji) who bows between setting up the courses of the emperor's breakfast.  He observes that the Americans may just interrupt that precise agenda and later gazes upon the sweat on the pate of the old man buttoning his shirt and comments on the humiliation of 1924 (when the U.S. refused immigration to Asians).  From noon to two he works in his lab, where he rapturously dictates notes on the miracle of a hermit crab, also known as the 'Samurai's face' (Sokurov goes in for a closeup and indeed, that is just what it looks like!).

The film takes a tonal turn around its midpoint, when Hirohito dresses in top hat and tails and ventures outside of his palace to attend a meeting with MacArthur.  American soldiers run about trying to herd a crane (one of the symbols of the emperor, along with the chrysanthemum) as the emperor slowly and stiffly makes his way to the awaiting car.  He inspects it before cautiously getting in, then views the horrors that have befallen Tokyo and its citizens unspooling outside his window like a newsreel.  The meeting itself is slightly comical.  Hirohito astounds and horrifies his translator by replying to MacArthur in English and conversation is awkward.  When the meeting is over and the emperor goes to leave he is confronted by a closed door and hesitates - he has never opened one in his lifetime.  The Americans remark on his childlike nature while Japanese comment is 'I think he was dictating his memoirs.'  The emperor returns to his palace and goes through photo albums - first of the royal family, then American movie stars, the U.S. equivalent of those descended from gods.

The screenplay by Yuri Arabov ("Mother and Son," "Taurus") and Jeremy Noble (writer) starts like "Downfall" then metamorphoses into something lighter and airy.  Sokurov has made a fascinating film about WWII's most mysterious figure.

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