The most perverse installment of Aleksandr Sokurov’s dictator cycle, The Sun follows the Russian director’s meditations on Hitler (Moloch, 1999) and Lenin (Taurus, 2000) with a curiously upbeat portrait of Japan’s last divine emperor, Hirohito, in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Much of The Sun, last seen here as part of the 2005 New York Film Festival, is spent with Hirohito in the bunker, waiting for the Americans. Attended by his chamberlain and a single doddering servant, the isolated, childlike emperor ignores air-raid sirens to work in his lab. He is a marine biologist who, examining a specimen crab, exclaims, “What heavenly beauty!” Hirohito (played by stage actor Issei Ogata) is himself something of a specimen—a naïve eccentric whose distinctive twitch suggests a carp gasping for breath.
The Sun, which broke a local taboo in representing the emperor on screen, has a brooding sepia palette and a subliminal Wagnerian soundtrack. Time is compressed: Although the movie’s event spans months, it feels as if it might be unfolding over the course of a lazy weekend. The drama is low-key and prosaic, save for Hirohito’s vision of flaming death from flying fish airplanes in the sky.
When it comes to assigning responsibility for wartime atrocities, Sokurov gives Hirohito the benefit of the doubt. Preparing a message for his defeated people (who have never heard his divine voice), he ponders his sacred heritage while leafing through a family photo album and then one devoted to pictures of Hollywood stars. Shall the emperor take his place among them? Cue the Jeeps: snatches of English dialogue, GIs on the lawn, Hirohito ordered “into the car” and driven through the rubble of Tokyo to meet the American Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur (ex-pat American actor, Robert Dawson).
The two men barely seem to inhabit the same movie, which is likely Sokurov’s point. The brusque, overbearing American soldier and the timid, whimsical Japanese emperor might as well be members of different species, although the haughty MacArthur acts like a king himself: “What’s it like to be a living god?” he asks Hirohito with a sarcasm born of his own absolute authority.
After he meets MacArthur, the emperor decides to allow himself to be photographed by the American press corps. Sokurov’s most delightful notion has the Americans identify their hitherto hated enemy with the most popular man in the world: After the emperor rewards them with a Chaplinesque pose, the reporters start calling him “Charlie.”
Though he successfully humanizes Hirohito, who is shown happily shedding his divinity, Sokurov doesn’t entirely exonerate him. He contrives a shock ending that, as measured as everything else in this engrossing, supremely assured movie, acknowledges one last blood sacrifice on the emperor’s altar.