Alexander Sokurov achieved considerable art house success with his 2002 Russian Ark, and with that newfound clout he returns to complete his "dictator" trilogy. The rather grim Moloch (1999), about a weekend with Hitler in his bunker, is available on DVD. Telets (2001), which as far as I can tell, never found much of a U.S. audience, was about Lenin, and now we get the surprisingly enjoyable The Sun, depicting the last days in power of Emperor Hirohito. (Please see also the very capable Martha Fischer's previous review from NYFF.)
Issei Ogata (Yi Yi, Tony Takitani) gives an amazing performance as Hirohito, waited on hand and foot, and barely able to dress himself. He's considered a quasi-deity by his people, too important to bother with the mundane details of mere human life. He has an odd tick in which his lips puff in and out, as if he were speaking and we simply can't hear him, or as if he were a fish out of water, gasping for breath. He spends a good deal of time writing bad poetry and letters to his son, as well as puttering with his hobby, marine biology.
The U.S. has arrived in Japan, and Hirohito's days are numbered. A car arrives to take Hirohito to a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson). Hirohito is cordial with his host. They smoke cigars and share a meal. Does Hirohito realize the U.S. has stomped Tokyo? Or does he believe that such a thing isn't really possible? In one great moment, MacArthur excuses himself and secretly watches from a side door while Hirohito becomes happily distracted by objects in the room.
Captured through Sokurov's usual distorted cinematography, which includes making figures look stretched too tall as well as shooting through a kind of grayish/brownish fog, and a deceptively alive soundtrack full of hums and buzzes, Hirohito comes across quite a lot like Chaplin's Little Tramp, or more appropriately, his Great Dictator. Like the tramp, this introspective ruler wishes merely to belong to find a place in the human world. He may even be looking forward to conceding his power and his godship in order to find a place among his family once again. (Who can blame him when the only people he sees on a daily basis are his own nervous, aging servants?)
Sokurov avoids historical details and concentrates solely on the world from Hirohito's point of view. But since this is a man more or less stripped of emotion, it's like watching a newborn fawn, violently ripped from its safety and learning its way in the world.