By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Alexander Sokurov’s “The Sun” opens in an awkward fashion. On the surface, life seems ordinary enough at the Imperial Palace of Japan. A servant brings in breakfast for the emperor on a tray. A second servant reads off the itinerary for the day. The emperor must attend a meeting with his war ministers. Then he will study marine biology, his favorite subject.
The year is 1945, and this emperor is Hirohito. Japan, for the first time in its history as a nation, is losing a war — World War II.
No one wants to talk about what’s going on. But everyone feels it. Hirohito (played with exquisite detail by Issey Ogata) sniffs himself, complaining of strange smells. His mouth works spasmodically without a word coming out. Sometimes, it seems as if he’s mouthing silently along with someone else’s speech.
He is supposed to be the summation of all that is Japanese, but under such enormous stress, his individuality seems to slip away.
Hirohito never goes anywhere indoors without his chamberlain (Shiro Sano), who oversees all aspects of the palace, and his oldest servant (Shinmei Tsuji). They, too, try to keep calm and remain cheerful. But their bodies betray them. The hands holding the breakfast tray shake. The old man sweats and murmurs as he buttons up the emperor’s military dress shirt.
Sokurov likes to study powerful figures. He’s made a film about Hilter (“Moloch”) and another about Stalin and Lenin (“Taurus”). But with “The Sun,” he captures a cross-section of life amid one of the 20th century’s biggest upheavals.
He does this with an eye for detail. Half-suppressed coughs fill the soundtracks and bitten lips keep officials from saying what they really want to say. Men in charge walk around looking and sounding like their heads are caught in huge invisible vises.
The lighting and ambiance also help the director paint his picture. From the beginning, the screen seems dim and baffling. Gas and electric lights never reach more than a few inches from their sources, leaving large pools of darkness that the emperor and his servants must navigate through.
Most people will know the circumstances surrounding the end of the war in Japan. Sokurov deliberately keeps some of the most prominent events offscreen. He’s focused on the emperor’s struggle to maintain his sanity.
Hirohito meets with United States General Douglas MacArthur, who is assigned to oversee the post-surrender occupation of Japan. Most filmmakers would portray the general as a haughty and all-powerful person.
But the character of MacArthur (Robert Dawson) in “The Sun” comes across as gentle and unassuming. He waits patiently for Hirohito to finish speaking and shows the emperor courtesy.
Conversation between the two does not flow well at first. The emperor insists on speaking English without a translator. The two men come from very different worlds. Slowly, they listen to each other and find some common ground.
“The Sun” ends seemingly in the middle of things. Much remains to be done. But Sokurov knows that history flows continuously. It started before the beginning of the film and rolls on impeccably after the closing credits. Ogata’s Hirohito marks and absorbs that exceptional history. ♦
“The Sun” plays Jan. 8–14 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th Street in Seattle’s University District. For prices and show times, call 206-523-3935 or visit www.grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.