The Sun

The Sun (Solntse) (2005)

The Sun (Solntse) first published by Film4, Feb 2006

Summary: In Aleksandr Sokurov’s intimate portrayal of an era’s end, Issei Ogata’s Emperor Hirohito must surrender his own contradictory identity in order to bring peace to a devastated Japan. 

Review: In the opening scene of The Sun (The Solntse), the Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata) is taking breakfast in a claustrophobic, if opulently fitted, war bunker beneath the bombed ruins of the Imperial Palace, while his chamberlain (Shirô Sano) reads him the schedule for the day ahead. It is a strange sequence, in which the most powerful figure in Japan, considered to be a descendant of the sun and a god made flesh, has every minute detail of his daily affairs dictated to him by a vassal. 

While the chamberlain speaks, the Emperor’s lips are seen to quiver involuntarily, as indeed they do throughout the film, not only indicating a frail humanity behind all the trappings of godhead, but also suggesting a man fated to mouth words that are not his own. Even the Emperor’s mannered gait, jerky and unnatural, marks him as a puppet, dancing to the tune of tradition, duty, and history itself. 

If the items on the timetable – a war council, two hours of private research in marine biology, as well as time reserved for a nap, for reflection, and for writing a letter to his son – sound like an incongruous blend of the political and the personal, the rational and the domestic, then their execution is even more confused. Seated before his war Cabinet, Hirohito cites an abstract poem written by his Imperial grandfather to support his decision to let the war continue, before regaling the sweating ministers with his views on evolutionary theory. Working in the laboratory (the only place where he seems relaxed), he free-associates from a disquisition on the migratory habits of the hermit crab to an analysis of the causes of the Great Asian War (with his scribe struggling to stay awake, let alone keep up).

During a siesta Hirohito has a nightmare vision of the devastation of Tokyo, but it is demonic sea life rather than American bombers that rain fire on the capital. Later at his writing desk he looks over a range of collected objects that are emblems of his contesting interests: photos of his family, of Hitler, and of American movie stars, as well as busts of Darwin and Napoleon (the latter discreetly replaced with one of Lincoln once the American Occupation has begun). This is a man whose many contradictory aspects seem to be no less at war than the Japanese people, and it is only at the film’s end, when the Emperor has renounced his divine status in the name of which Japan is fighting to the very last man, that he is able to deliver peace to both himself and his nation. 

The Sun is the third in Aleksandr Sokurov’s tetralogy of films about men of great power viewed from an intimate, humanist perspective – but unlike Hitler in Moloch (1999) or Lenin in Taurus (2000), Hirohito is no tyrant driven mad by personal ambition, but a conflicted man whose power is a burden borne with dignity, but not without question; and while the film certainly alludes to past Japanese atrocities, and depicts the Emperor’s personal responsibility in needlessly prolonging the war, his ultimate decision to slough off his godhead is shown to be an act of courage, nobility, adaptability and acute self-knowledge – hardly qualities that were shared by his fellow Axis leaders. 

In an extraordinarily nuanced performance, Ogata portrays the Emperor as someone with as many facets to his character as costumes in his walk-in wardrobe. He is rigid and formal yet giddily boyish; highly educated yet unsure how to open a door; gravely haunted by the circumstances in which he is trapped yet all too aware of his own ridiculousness; in command of a nation yet not a little lost (quite literally, in one scene). He cuts such an unimposing, unworldly figure that the initial failure of American photographers to realise that the man before them is the Emperor, and their comment on his similarity to Charlie Chaplin, are both entirely believable responses – even if it is less clear here whether he is just being himself, or rather beginning already to play the new rôle that history is writing for him in a strategic PR campaign devised by General MacArthur

The second half of The Sun is dominated by two meetings between Hirohito and MacArthur (Robert Dawson), in which the two enemies gradually overcome their differences, leading the ‘Supreme Commander’ to spare the life of his ‘main war criminal’, and the Emperor to spare the lives of countless Japanese. Here, as before, Sokurov brings monumental events down to a human scale, as two men dine together in an otherwise empty room, share cigars and cognac, discuss philosophy, family and geopolitics, and make decisions that will change the world forever. The final scene sees Hirohito reunited with the Empress (Kaori Momoi) and heading offstage to see his children, closing the door on an entire epoch. With a full moon shining above, a werewolf-like transformation has just taken place, as a supernatural being has turned himself into a human leader, and the sun has truly set on Japan’s centuries-old Imperial traditions, ushering in a new era. 

Verdict: Finely observed, exquisitely shot and immaculately performed, Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun portrays the adaptable deicide of a tormented leader.

Anton Bitel