Alexander Sokurov's The Sun (Solntse), the third film in his planned tetralogy about the downfall of powerful leaders/tyrants, details the life of Emperor Hirohito in the days following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including the events that led to his radio address in which he asked his nation to surrender, and gave up his divine status. Though a logical follow-up to Moloch (which was about Hitler) and Taurus (Lenin), Sokurov here creates a far more sympathetic view of the Emperor than he did of the other two subjects. (Curiously enough, the fourth film in the series is going to be an adaptation of Goethe's Faust.)
The first thing one notices is the way in which Sokurov portrays Hirohito. Shown as a timid, simple character, he comes off more like a Japanese Chauncey Gardiner than a descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu -- his insular, isolated life left him unprepared for something like this. Set in a modest laboratory building (the imperial palace damaged by bombings), the early part of the film details his daily rituals, and shows him as a man dedicated to both science and art -- he spends time in his marine biology lab studying a crab, and later is shown writing poetry -- while outside his nation lies in ruin. It's only when he meets with General MacArthur that we get a sense of the man's role in the war that has just ended.
Though the leaders of several nations wanted the Emperor to be prosecuted by military tribunal, MacArthur, after meeting with Hirohito, recommended that he not be tried as a war criminal. His willingness to accept responsibility for the actions of the Japanese government, along with his declaration that he is not a god, but merely a man, saved countless lives of soldiers willing to fight until the bitter end. It is this decision that Sokurov seems to be fascinated with. In both Moloch and Taurus, Hitler and Lenin do nothing to help the tragic situations that they themselves created -- quite the opposite in fact. As Sokurov said recently, "The Japanese Emperor Hirohito is a symbol of a constructive finale or, more accurately, not a finale but a continuation -- of life."
Still, The Sun seems more of a personal drama than a political one. Issey Ogata, better known for his comedic talents, is wonderful in the lead role, especially in the slight gestures and mannerisms that allow us to see him as plainly human. While those in his employ are literally unable to stand seeing their Emperor treated as a common individual, he seems more than willing to do what is asked of him. When confronted with American photographers for the first time, their reaction is to comment how he reminds them of Charlie Chaplin. Though his Chamberlain is horrified, Hirohito stops and asks the photographers "Do I really look like this actor?" (Earlier, we saw him looking with admiration at photos of other Hollywood stars -- he might consider the Chaplin comment a compliment.) Near the end of the film, Hirohito learns that the man who recorded his speech committed suicide shortly after the taping -- and it is at this precise moment that we see recognition of all he was responsible for. A powerful moment that Ogata handles with perfection.
With its dim lighting and muted colors, The Sun resembles several other Sokurov films, though he may have overdone it a bit. The first third is so very dark, that some in the theater felt there was a projection problem. Shot by Sokurov himself (interesting, considering his vision problems), the entire film consists of shots that are constructed with fine precision, and camera movement is kept to a minimum. The dialog with MacArthur is wonderful, though Robert Dawson plays him with a warmth and kindness than we usually don't associate with old "Dugout Doug". It's hard to imagine what impact the film will have in Japan (should it ever play at all). Will people be offended by his playfulness, or his almost childlike simplicity, or will they appreciate the special human nature that Sokurov found so impressive in Hirohito? Though more straightforward than the other two films in the tetralogy, The Sun is still not for everyone -- many will find the pacing excessively slow. However, as a longtime fan of Sokurov, Filmbrain can easily rank this as one of his best. Neither Moloch nor Taurus has ever been officially released in the States -- one can only hope The Sun fares a better chance.