Monday, November 16, 2009

Sokurov’s The Sun

Great political power in and of itself does not seem to interest Alexander Sokurov. In his thematically related “Great Leaders” film series, the Russian director has instead focused on titanic historical figures in the twilight of their supremacy. Previously, Sokurov portrayed Hitler and Lenin as irredeemably warped by their madness and craven appetite for control over others (in Molloch and Taurus respectively). Ironically, the Emperor Shōwa (better known in the West as Hirohito) emerges as a much more human figure, despite the divine status he has yet to renounce in Sokurov’s The Sun (trailer here), the third installment of his projected tetralogy, which opens at Film Forum this Wednesday.

The Emperor has never buttoned his shirt or opened a door on his own. Closely attended by servants since birth, he seems naively ignorant of worldly matters. Arguably, he is also a war criminal. With the arrival of the American occupational force, a reckoning would seem inevitable, yet it is unclear whether the sheltered Emperor fully understands his precarious position.

The Sun probably could not have been made by a Japanese filmmaker. Serving as his own cinematographer, Sokurov creates a dour, ethereal world of gauzy grays and sepia tones that eerily reflects Hirohito’s alienation from conventional life. Twitchy and awkward, the Emperor hardly cuts an imperial figure. Indeed Japanese actor Issey Ogata gives a bold performance in more ways than one, vividly humanizing and humbling an iconic national figure. Yet in contrast to Sokurov’s other subjects, the noble-born Hirohito actually has a capacity for genuine nobility and perhaps even redemption.

Chronicling the days leading up to Hirohito’s great renunciation, Sun might seem like an uneventful film on the surface. Yet Sokurov and the riveting Ogata compellingly convey the ostensive leader’s tremendous internal drama. Especially intriguing are Hirohito’s tense meetings with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the American occupation, which would directly shape the future of the Japanese nation. Though not exactly a perfect likeness, Robert Dawson at least projects the right military bearing and mannerisms as the General, conspicuously contrasting with the reserved Emperor.

Do Sokurov and screenwriter Yury Arabov let Hirohito off too easily for his complicity in Japanese war crimes? Perhaps. Yet they present an engrossing study of a flawed man, unexpectedly rising to the occasion at critical juncture in history. Unlike the monstrous Lenin and Hitler, Sokurov’s Hirohito truly cares more for the welfare of his people than his own interests. In fact, it might be easier for him to relate to his country on a macro level than to interact with people on an individual plane, including even his wife.

Filmed with stately deliberation, The Sun is a thoughtful examination of power and nobility. Though it might be considered controversial in Japan for depicting the Emperor Shōwa as mortal man of slight stature and an almost childlike demeanor, The Sun is in fact a highly sympathetic cinematic rendering of Hirohito and his proud countrymen. It opens Wednesday (11/18) at Film Forum.