Aleksandr Sokurov's Solntse (The Sun)
is a difficult movie. So much so that half the audience walked out in the middle when I saw it at Sundance. Anyone expecting an action-laden flick with bullets flying overhead will be gravely disappointed. Instead The Sun
is about Emperor Hirohito, specifically, the waning days of World War II.
It marks the third installment of Sokurov's planned despotic tetralogy. 1999's Molokh
featured Hitler and two years later came Telets
focusing on Lenin. I've not seen these two films, unfortunately, so I cannot tell how The Sun
fits in with Sokurov's overall approach to such people. This movie, however, seems interested in cutting Hirohito down to size, to show that a figure traditionally thought to have been descended from the sun god is, in fact, simply a man.
It opens with Hirohito, expertly portrayed by Issei Ogata, having his breakfast in a rather stately looking room while two servants attend to him. This beginning sequence of the film establishes the demigod status of the emperor but has the Japanese leader eat away at it. One attendant announces his schedule which includes a cabinet meeting along with a dose of marine biology and a nap. Rather sarcastically, he asks how his schedule would be affected if the Americans were to show up. After this as Hirohito is being dressed, he says that he has the body of a man just as does the guy tending to his every need. The servant is aghast at the thought and so the emperor remarks that he was only joking to assuage the fears of his loyal subject. And throughout Ogata affects a lip tic so that he looks like he is about to speak but he remains silent.
Sokurov takes his time and this is likely why people left the theatre. An emperor preparing for his day would probably only merit a minute or two in a typical Hollywood film but here the minutiae of quotidian rituals and the extended period spent in an elaborately decorated yet windowless bunker lends a feeling of claustrophobia. The viewer is forced to learn about Hirohito through small acts and brief sentences in a confined space. After finishing breakfast, the emperor walks behind a partition as his servant babbles on. While there was nothing on the soundtrack, I presume he was availing himself of a chamber pot. Only gods can urinate so silently!
Hirohito attends a cabinet meeting where he urges his defeated generals to continue the fight by quoting a poem. Then it's off to the lab where he examines a hermit crab and describes its beauty to an assistant taking notes and who eventually nods off. It is a weird, surreal existence to be studying a crab and waxing poetic about it while Tokyo burns.
Eventually the Americans arrive. Hirohito goes outside only to find some G.I.s screwing around on the lawn like a bunch of kids, blithely unaware that the emperor is before them. He is then subjected to a photo shoot as American scramble for shots. MacArthur meets with the emperor and treats him like a child. Hirohito, in an attempt to save some face, fires back by speaking English and informing the general that he can also speak several other languages. He is at once outside of events yet very keenly aware of them.
In the end, Hirohito is informed that the man who recorded his speech in which he informed the Japanese people of his surrender had committed hari-kari
. He asks if the official had tried to stop the man from killing himself and it told "No." Death was better for that guy than attempting to come to grips with, not only his country's loss in the war, but also the humbling fact that his emperor was less than godlike and capitulated.