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Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov is one of the legendary foreign auteurs of whom we in the US see far too little. Though his Russian Ark created a stir last year for its technical merit (the entire film consists of a single, 96-minute tracking shot), most of his works fail to find distribution in the US, and his fans must track them down at film festivals, or buy hacked DVD players and foreign DVDs. (Or they go to press screenings, which end up so full that people are sitting on the floor.) The Sun, his latest work, is the third in what Sokurov calls his “men of power” tetrology. It, too, is still lacking a distributor (ironically, its screening at the New York Film Festival comes in the midst of a general release in England) and will probably suffer the same fate as the first two films in the series (Moloch, about Hitler and Eva Braun, and Taurus, which explored Stalin’s last days), neither of which ever was seen outside of festivals in the US.
With The Sun, Sokurov turns his attention to Japan's World War II leader, Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata). Though the film is ostensibly a examination of the days surrounding the Emperor’s decision to surrender, it also offers a fascinatingly intimate portrait of a man and a nation. Concerned much more with the details of personality and psychology than with those of international politics, much of Sokurov’s film is spent alone with Hirohito, as he struggles to come to grips with his role in the horror that has befallen his people. Splitting his time between a miraculously untouched laboratory and his underground bunker, the Emperor - also known as The Sun - sees only his own servants, who are simultaneously proud and terrified of the God they serve; even in their presence he is entirely isolated inside his own head.
In Sokurov’s hands, Hirohito is transformed into a deeply ordinary man, slight of build and awkward in manner, with twin photo albums of his beloved family and his favorite film stars. He has interests that extend far beyond politics, and is particularly fascinated by marine biology, the study of which is included in each day’s detailed schedule. The Emperor is also increasingly uncomfortable with his status as a God, the reality of which he is reminded of constantly by his worshipful staff. When he describes himself as potentially the “last Japanese left alive,” a servant recoils in horror - the mere suggestion that Hirohito is flesh and blood is literally impossible for him to comprehend. As the Americans continue their inexorable march towards Tokyo, however, the Emperor himself seems to think of little else.
Though his entire military staff assumes that all of Japan will do the honorable thing and fight to the death to protect The Sun, Hirohito is plagued by nightmares of bombings and death, and is clearly wracked by guilt at the thought of what the nation will sacrifice for honor, and for him. When he hints to the military that he will surrender, most of the uniformed dignitaries respond with the expected shame and disgust, but there are also a few tears of relief - the emperor is not the only one who feels guilt.
When the Americans finally arrive, Hirohito’s world changes utterly. He is transported by car to meet with General MacArthur (Robert Dawson), a trip that takes him for the first time through his ruined city. Outside the Imperial Palace grounds lie smoking ruins, populated only by desperate scavengers who pick at scraps and fight over their findings; the Emperor is horrifed by what he sees. Later, asked to appear in photographs for the military press corps, he has what is probably his first experience as a mortal: standing in a rose garden, he poses and waves for the pushy, disrespectful photographers. Though at first clearly disconcerted by their intimidating informality, the Emperor quickly begins to enjoy himself, sniffing the flowers and hamming it up for his increasingly appreciative audience. Hirohito, though still confused and desperately alone, begins to get a sense of a greater world in which he is just one man; along with the fear that sense inevitably brings comes increased confidence in his decision to save his people through surrender.
Much of the final third of the film is taken up by Hirohito’s meetings with MacArthur, the tone of which is partially taken from the General’s memoirs. The two men engage in often obtuse, strangely intimate conversation that usually conducted in private, without the aid of a translator (Hirohito proudly announces that he speaks not only English but Italian, French, and German as well). There is a quick, confused respect between these two who have been taught to despise one another, and a suggestions that each may understand just a hint of the pressure the other is under. MacArthur has a stereotypically American frankness to him, while Hirohito often expresses his feelings through misdirection, appearing to be discussing something else entirely when he is in fact talking about the war. There is also a surprising sensitivity to the General, something that adds poignancy to these already touching scenes.
Despite its historical content and fairly complex plot, watching The Sun is a visceral experience as much as it is an intellectual one. The entire film is shot with a very muted pallet, and some of it is so dark that you sometimes wonder if the projector is faulty. Rather than being off-putting, though, this strange look creates an atmosphere that very effectively pulls the viewer deeper and deeper into Hirohito’s head. When he ventures outside for the first time, for example, the world is so grey and foreign that it almost seems to be shot in black and white, a visual that is in perfect harmony with the dazed look on the Emperor’s face and the hesitation in his step. The scenes with MacArthur, while infused with slightly more color, are full of deep shadows, and the General himself is never fully lit, a dreamlike look that adds to the unreality of the situation. One gets the sense that the words exchanged between the two men could not have been spoken in any other environment - a bright light would somehow have made things too real for such vulnerability.
Sokurov’s attention to his film’s look, however, extends well beyond its color and lighting: each frame of The Sun is so carefully composed that it posses a painterly lushness. With its dim pallet and weirdly soft edges, the film begins to look for all the world like a collection of paintings by Caravaggio. Camera movements, when they come, are so slow and stately that they serve only to emphasize the composition of the images, and to allow the viewer to examine them in greater detail.
In the end, watching The Sun is a complex experience. Hirohito’s doubts and simple humanness are deeply affecting, and the film’s visual artistry is so profound that it becomes almost overwhelming. It’s unsettling to watch a film and feel like you should be somehow thanking its creator for the opportunity, but such is the power that Sokurov wields. Though it may seem outrageous to say so, there is an inescapable sense of prestige and true majesty to his film that makes it impossible to shake until long after it leaves the screen. I often found myself so lost in the images on the screen that I totally forgot to read the subtitles - it was as if I was in a museum and not watching a movie at all. While I don’t know that I would ever say “Yeah, I really liked The Sun,” I wouldn’t hesitate to describe watching it as a true privilege.