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October 9, 2005

The Sun, 2005

sun.gifAleksandr Sokurov has always seemed to be particularly in his element with his dense and amorphous expositions of integrated, Eastern spirituality (A Humble Life, Dolce) and the commutation of collective history (Oriental Elegy, Russian Ark, so it comes as no suprise that the third installment of his historical tetralogy, The Sun - a film that incorporates both aspects of these recurring themes - is his most accomplished (to date) of the series. Rendering a painstainkingly detailed portrait, not of the biographical life of Hirohito (Issei Ogata), the (hu)man, but rather, of the culturally unquestioned institution of the divine Emperor of Japan, Sokurov’s vision eschews the conventional framework of illustrating the turmoil and decimation of the waning days of war in order to present a more challenging and illuminating portrait of a physically slight, pensive, and perhaps reluctant national ruler trapped in the eternal performance of traditional rituals and bound to the rigid social codes of his inherited role. From the opening sequence of the emperor impassively listening to his itinerary for the day over a private breakfast - including his exact hour for catching an afternoon nap - the film provides an image of the imprisoning rituals - and consuming weight - of assumed power. The selection of Richard Wagner's elegiac compositions (Wagner also composd the magnum opus operatic tetralogy, the Ring Cycle) seems especially suited to this twentieth century portait of götterdämmerung, chronicling the literal twilight of the sun god, as the defeated Japanese emperor transforms from deity to mere mortal after his official surrender to General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson) and the American occupiers. However, even more than the actions of Hirohito himself, the film's incisive study of the cultural framework that underpins the source of the emperor's absolute power provides a particularly relevant context to Sokurov's expositions on the dynamics of power and (false) idolatry, most notably in the filmmaker's treatment of the mythification of a political leader that seems eerily resonant of contemporary American politics in which a destructive culture of unquestioned faith, intractable policies, isolationism, and evocation of divine rule serves to unwittingly precipitate the nation's own predestined failure and international marginalization.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival


So what did you think of the MacArthur character in the film? Symbolic or realistic?

I saw mostly the human side of Hirohito myself actually, and very little insight on his social position vis-à-vis his own people, except for the contact he had with his devoted servants (which is hardly representative of the population, even if they adorned him as well). The bunker entrapment limits dramatically the social contextualisation of his last days.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Oct 11, 2005 8:42 PM | Permalink

Sokurov actually paints him more sympathetically that he actually was, I think. MacArthur actually came across as a bit more thoughtful and deliberative, and less of an egoist. His actions came across as being done more out of tactical expedience for the surrender than as coming from his personality. In that sense, he's more representational of the American mindset than his own.

I agree with you about the sense of entrapment. Not only does it tie into Japanese isolation at the beginning of the war, but also the isolation of power. Regarding social context though, I think the closing comment about the fate of the sound engineer is what really ties it all together. There is a very palpable sense, not simply that the Japanese people had lost the war, but that they had lost their god too and upended their entire belief system. It wasn't just reverence for someone of higher status to them (as in any monarch), it was an idolatry, and in the end, it was a false one.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 12, 2005 1:03 PM | Permalink

In that sense it bears relevance to current politics, as the social trauma is too prompt when a structural reform is imposed by a foreign ingerence.
Probably the japanese people would still obey to their emperor today if they hadn't had to drop their archaic regime.
Although I understand they lost also a noble part of their history, art, pride, etiquette with the emperor.
Sokurov's portrait is rather dense though, I had hard time to read all the symbolism you can extract there.
Thanks for the helpful analysis.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Oct 12, 2005 6:09 PM | Permalink

I liked the only Sokurov I've seen -- 'Father and Son' -- and I'm looking forward to seeing 'The Sun' whenever it comes out on DVD, but I'm curious about one aspect. The Internet Movie Database lists a tiny cast for the film. Is that a mistake, or does 'The Sun' focus primarily on the confrontation(s) between Hirohito and MacArthur?

Posted by: Pacze Moj on Oct 18, 2005 5:59 PM | Permalink

That's pretty accurate; the two without character names are likely his manservant and his personal assistant. There are some scenes with U.S. soldiers and also another with his cabinet, but they're peripheral characters. I'd say that more than half of the film is actually spent on Hirohito's rituals, with only the last half hour being on his encounters with MacArthur. The film is really more about this "ritual of divinity" (as the NYFF literature calls it) and Hirohito's transformation from god to human than it is about the MacArthur confrontation.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 18, 2005 6:34 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the swift response.

Posted by: Pacze Moj on Oct 18, 2005 7:44 PM | Permalink

I don’t know why Sokurov has chosen to shoot this film in such a low resolution. For me it is like committing hara-kiri to the film. It is simply irritating to watch! It is ever worse than what Dogme 95 did to film. Maybe he wanted it took look old. The digital manipulation of the war images is also quite disappointing.

And this is really one man show. Issei Ogata is great as Emperor, his servants are OK, but the rest of the actors, specially the ones playing the Americans, are b-rank.

Very interesting subject which could make a great play. But as a film for me it was opportunity wasted.

Posted by: Lecho on Dec 13, 2006 3:21 AM | Permalink

Sokurov likes to do optical experimentation on his films though, and I suspect that since it was shot in DV, he may have been trying to simulate film granularity. Ogata is of course the highlight of the film, but the liminality of the supporting characters probably had more to do with the fact that Hirohito lead such an insular and self-distracted life that the people around him weren't even registering in his periphery than anything else. This is one of those films where the final revelation, also told to him in characteristic, second hand to insulate him, really crystallizes all the minutiae that's happened before, and that's what made the film pretty unforgettable for me.

Posted by: acquarello on Dec 13, 2006 6:28 PM | Permalink

Thanks for interesting reply. I think you relate to the story of the radio operator who committed harakiri. For me also the translator character is very interesting. Even though he is an American soldier he still treats the Emperor as if he was a god. I have read a lot about Japan during last year and even tried to learn it at some point. And Japanese film from 50-ies and 60-ies is one of my favourite periods. So meeting (and clash) of Japanese and Western cultures interests me a lot.

As I wrote, the story is very interesting and wonderfully played by Ogata, but it is hard for me to accept poor image quality on film and bad acting.

Posted by: Lecho on Dec 14, 2006 4:32 AM | Permalink

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