In The Sun, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov finds the perfect subject matter for his unique aesthetic, drawing an intimate portrait of controversial and eccentric Japanese Emperor Hirohito in the waning days of World War II. Hirohito reigned from 1926 until his death in 1989, during arguably the most tumultuous time in Japanese history, and despite his suspect decision making — including the invasion of China and the bombing of Pearl Harbor — Hirohito emerged from the War relatively unscathed. This cunning adaptability is a trait Sokurov exploits with ironic sympathy. Illusively positioned between guilt and innocence, Emperor Hirohito’s complicity is a puzzle that not only troubled MacArthur and the Allies, but also continues to draw contention in almost every corner of the discussion today.
The Sun is the third film in Sokurov’s trilogy on the corrupting effects of power (first came 1999’s Moloch on Hitler, then 2001’s Taurus on Lenin), and it’s nothing short of a full crescendo. Its title alludes to the mythology that the Emperor is a descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and Sokurov situates his story in the days between the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Equal parts speculation and documented fact, the film stays sequestered with the Emperor in the safety of his palace as he prepares for defeat through the self-indulgence of studying marine life and writing poetry. Over its 110-minute duration, The Sun witnesses centuries old imperial traditions slowly disintegrate, including Hirohito’s own denunciation of his divinity. After being ceremoniously served breakfast down in his bunker, the Emperor is presented with his daily schedule. He responds to this in a way that is neither bitter nor anxious but tinged with sarcastic humor, observing, “And if the Americans should show up here, what will happen to the day’s schedule? Will you make some changes, or leave it as it is?” The servants shrink from his question. The Americans do soon show up, of course, and Hirohito’s schedule is changed. The Emperor need not think about such perfunctory things as buttoning his shirt or opening a door, and Sokurov studies the personality bred into him—one with little or no connection to hardship, let alone war.
Sokurov takes creative license to distill how Hirohito would imagine the the fire-bombings of Tokyo, a dream sequence wherein flying fish inhabit the blaze-ridden airspace as enemy bombers. This nightmare serves as contrast to a later scene, when Hirohito, escorted by car to his first meeting with General MacArthur, passes through the heart of bombed out Tokyo, a landscape almost as surreal as his own dream. As such, it’s clear that Sokurov is interested in history primarily as context — both past and present — for his central character. The Sun is more of a character study than a critique, and Sokurov has the audacity to avoid judgment of the Emperor (normally characterized as villain or puppet), and allow Hirohito to argue his own humanity. Stage actor Issey Ogata is given the impossible task of portraying a man physically and emotionally removed from his people. Ogata’s Hirohito is laden with oddities and ticks that are too strange not to be based in fact: his mouth twitches and puckers obscenely, and he carries himself in such a way as to be almost otherworldly. Sokurov casts a similarly eerie spell, serving as both director and cinematographer. He gives The Sun a look of bleached-out antiquity that accentuates the dimness of the interiors as well as the searing light of sun. And he fills quiet moments with a strange ambience alternately reminiscent of cicadas, white noise, and strings, which creates an undulating tension with little or no release. Near the end of the film, it seems as though Sokurov is going to allow in a bit of tenderness. Empress Kojun joins Emperor Hirohito shortly after his unconditional surrender. The Emperor immediately relaxes in the presence of his wife, a person who understands him and his taxing situation. The two share the film’s only warm moment of joy and sadness. But just as quickly, this “happy ending” comes to a close when it’s revealed that the man who taped the Emperor’s surrender speech has committed suicide under the shame of defeat. Here the film delivers a brilliantly ambiguous ending, with suggestions lingering on the faces of the Emperor, Empress and their servant like an albatross of an unknown future.