Sunday, January 10, 2010

Review: Alexander Sokurov's "The Sun"

The SunIt is appallingly cold in Chicago, but I nevertheless headed downtown to the Gene Siskel Film Center last night to see a screening of Russian director Alexander Sokurov's remarkable 2005 film The Sun, the third in his tetralogy of films on major historical figures. (The first, Moloch (1999) focused on Adolf Hitler, and the second, Taurus (2000), explored Vladimir Lenin's life; the fourth, I've read online, with treat Goethe's Faust, which perhaps is another way of saying he's shooting a film about Richard Nixon.) The Sun, a 110 minute feature, takes as its protagonist Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Emperor Showa) (1901-1989), narrowing in on his life during the final days of World War II, after the US has dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and begun its conquest of the main Japanese islands. I use the word "narrow" purposely, because Sokurov has produced something other than a biopic and instead, almost in keeping with Hirohito's marine biological preoccupations, focused in almost scientific fashion on the this pivotal historical and social moment, when this living embodiment of tradition and spirituality to his people--a descendent of the Sun God--accepts his country's defeat and renounces his divinity to become, as his wife says, both with bemusement and perhaps a touch of resignation, "a commoner" in the service of preserving what remains of his nation. Throughout Sokurov's treatment is more poetic than verisimilitudinous, though it mostly tracks the factual record, but its manipulation of time, its explorations of the spiritual underlining the human, and its immersion in the mise-en-scène, always chief interests of this director, here seem particularly apt. Hours and days, some of the most important in world history, meld into into indefinable time, almost as one imagines they must have for an emperor-deity existing almost outside of calendars and clocks, yet this same expanded, unreal temporality is punctuated with prosaic elements that underline this figurehead's humanness, even if his humanity is ultimately remains in question. In addition to depicting Hirohito, superlatively inhabited by Issey Ogata--down to what appears to have been the Emperor's strange labial tics, hesitant manner of speaking and almost robotic, ceremonial gait--getting dressed in military finery to meet with his war cabinet, Sokurov also shows him examining a hermit crab specimen, writing haiku, querying the astonished leader of a nearly destroyed scientific institute about the Northern Lights, and clumsily comforting his wife, all signs of apparent normalcy yet all amidst the destructive finale of the war he approved and oversaw.

In a sense, Sokurov's theme is the negotiation between royalty and humanity, between the exalted state and national state of the royal body and personhood (and I think here of Ernst Kantorowicz's famous but perhaps forgotten study of medieval European kingship, The King's Two Bodies), and his lonely human individuality, which Sokurov portrays in all their ironies. As Emperor and God, and living symbol and embodiment of Japan, Hirohito is viewed here by his courtiers and servants, like the Japanese people in general, as almost beyond the corporeal, always apart from them, and yet, as a living figure, they must serve his mundane personal needs, down to buttoning him into shirts, bowing deeply and averting their gaze when he is nearby, and opening and closing doors for him. His own negotiation of his status is a central element of the drama; at one point, he demands to be left alone, to think for himself--and make the momentous decision of capitulation and renunciation--yet his elderly servant is by habit almost unable to let him out of his sight, for fear that he might go a second without being properly attended to. It is a serious but comical moment, one of many in the film. Another comes when he agrees to the American military's demand to be photographed. Stepping outside of the laboratory where he has holed up--the Imperial Palace having been heavily bombed--Sokurov shows Hirohito, wearing neither the elaborate morning (and mourning) suit in which he goes to dine with General MacArthur (Robert Dawson) nor a kimono, but a simple tweed suit, with waistcoat and fedora, uneasily and unassumingly approaching the American military press gang, with none of the imperial pomp that might be expected, before he is directed to stand amidst the roses in the nearby garden. This tiny, bespectacled figure, posing with apparent diffidence and pleasure, leads some of the Americans to suggest that he favors Charlie Chaplin, to which he replies, with a tinge of amusement and to the absolute horror of his chamberlain, "Do I really look like that actor?" The shock of the Japanese around him--and perhaps even today for hardcore imperialists--is palpable. But Sokurov has only shortly before shown Hirohito in his beautifully appointed bunker, gazing consolingly not only through his family photo book, which includes snapshots of Hitler and Chancellor von Hindenburg, but through a picturebook of Hollywood stars, including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and none other than the "Little Tramp" himself, Chaplin. Later still he claims not to see popular films at all. The effect is, as I've suggested, ironic by many degrees.

The SunSokurov's further dramatizes the concept of negotiation, in reference to the relationship between the US and Japan, still complex and ongoing. The Americans we see through its GIs and officers, in their crisp khaki, mostly white, mostly full of boisterous cheer, but also brimming at points with disrespect, yet always in full command of this country on which they have leashed the then-ultimate weapon in a successful effort to win a war. Dawson's MacArthur engages in mental games with Hirohito; he orders him around, cuts him off, commands him to eat, and at one point claims to have a pressing appointment, though we see he has secreted himself away to spy on this "childlike" figure, to use his term, who, he also comes to recognize, is a lot smarter and wilier than he'd imagined. (Sokurov shows this as well earlier when, in the meeting with the War Cabinet, Hirohito commands them to fight on, by way of an inscrutable poem written by his grandfather, the Meiji Emperor, which is to say, in essence to the death.) Hirohito in fact does surprise him, and the viewer; when the Japanese-American translator begs him to speak Japanese, as by diplomatic protocol and because of his elevated station, Hirohito nevertheless speaks fluent if somewhat stiff English, noting to MacArthur that he can also speak French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Russian, and a host of other languages, noting at the same time that as the defeated party, he will use the language of the victor. When left alone, he examines the wares in the dining room, before waltzing by himself and peering out on the devastated landscape of Tokyo; this, we gather, he realizes is what he's wrought. As such, he commands if not the viewer's sympathy, then perhaps a modicum of acknowledgement that he is something other than a monster or a buffoon, an empty figurehead or a caricature thereof. Hirohito's sense of his and his nation's severely straitened circumstances, particularly in relation to the USA, are clear on Ogata's mobile face, just as MacArthur's sense of his value are clear on Dawson's. The hierarchy of the victor and vanquished is apparent on one level, yet not so much on another.

One of the most interesting moments in the film to me, and which I haven't seen any other reviewers mention, was the Hirohito's repetition, once as a throwaway comment and later as part of a rant, about one of the causes of the war. As Sokurov presents it, Hirohito carried inside him an ember of rage and resentment at the US's racial and white supremacist policies, particularly California's Racial Exclusion Act of 1924, which barred Japanese immigration, and in the film mentions this early on to an elderly servant, who nods it off, but later, as he is seething about his military's failures, he cites it again, specifically mentioning Japan's support for global brotherhood after the First World War and the Golden State's anti-Japanese legislation and US racism, which provoked the military leadership. I found myself wondering whether this was Sokurov's intervention or one of Hirohito's actual hobbyhorses; in fact I think most Americans would be hard pressed to register any of the specifics the history of anti-Asian prejudice in this country beyond the Japanese internment during World War II and more recent attacks, in the 1990s, let alone grasp that this might have been a historical fuel for World War II. Yet I also had to note the irony, very likely intentional by Sokurov, of this excuse for a war that was already a budding possibility after the failure of Japanese civilian government control of the military in the 1920s and Japan's alliance with the most racist regime that has ever ruled anywhere on earth, the German Nazi Reich, and Japan's own extreme brutality, based in part on a feeling of ethnic and cultural superiority, against its neighboring Asian states, such as China, Korea, and the Phillipines, both before and during the Second World War. Sokurov thus pushes the underlying discourse beyond the usual commonplaces, forcing the viewer to take a more nuanced reading of history from a personal and geopolitical standpoint.

I have said little about the technical aspects of the film, but I should note that despite being shot in digital video, the cinematography is often pristine, with the right amount of color bled from the images to render them vivid yet of the past, and a slight haziness enhancing the otherworldiness of the subject matter. Sokurov's uses of long and close shots, and a static camera, repeatedly capture the at-times sarcophogal atmosphere, the mood, of the Emperor's life, its spatial contours, the mise-en-scène unfolding, like the leaves of a chrysanthemum outwards, towards the wider world of which, we soon realize, Hirohito is very much a part. The slow, stately pacing only enhances this. Breaking what could have been too much visual and temporal gravity, however, are several lyrical and fantastic moments, such as when Hirohito imagines the firebombing of Tokyo, and instead of airplanes, we see fish-bird-like creatures zooming through an animated, fiery space before turning into, becoming bombs. This episode manages to link the Emperor's fascination with the natural world to his poetic sense of time and space, and his achronological existence and his chronotopic perception of the war, while also showing both how out of touch and simultaneously in touch he is. He is shown finally viewing the destruction of Tokyo on his car trip to meet with MacArthur; his has been aware of what has been happening, and yet, we gather, unlike the British royal family during World War II, has been studiously kept away from it. In the end, the viewer leaves without an assured sense that Hirohito has fully gotten what he's presided over; when he is told that the engineer who recorded his surrender speech, broadcast over the radio and marking the first time most Japanese had ever heard his voice, has committed hari-kiri, and he asks his chamberlain if he tried to stop him and is told "No," there is a glimmer of the Emperor's recognition, or perhaps the viewer projects one, of the unspeakable chain of tragedies that have occurred in his name and of the radically changed world to come, before he heads off with his wife, the Empress, to reunite with his children, now returned from safekeeping in the countryside. It is, in the end, a strange and riveting portrait of a man and figurehead who, even today, remains, for intentional and non-intentional reasons, a historical and personal enigma.

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