The Sun Review
Part of a proposed tetralogy of films on the most important political figures of the 20th Century – he has already made films based on Hitler (Moloch, 1999) and Lenin (Taurus, 2001) - The Sun is Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s meditation on the circumstances and fate of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito as he surrenders to American forces at the end of the Second World War. What could otherwise be dry, difficult historical material becomes, through Sokurov’s typically poetic approach and treatment, a transcendental work of art.
In 1945 at the end of the Second World War, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito remains closed off from the world in his private underground bunker as the American forces conduct raids on Tokyo. Sheltered from the devastation that is going on outside, he is waited on hand and foot by his servants and his every word is written down by his secretary. Hirohito nevertheless carries out his duties, continuing his studies in marine biology and conducting meetings with the leaders of his armed forces to ascertain the progress of the war. When the Americans arrive, and with atom bombs having been dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hirohito has no option but to meet General MacArthur and accept an unconditional surrender. The shame of defeat and having to face the outside world is a traumatic experience for a very private man who the Japanese people have been led to believe is a deity, the incarnation of the Sun God. The shock however will no less traumatic for the Japanese public who are about to hear the voice of their God Emperor for the first time, renouncing his claim to godhood and surrendering to the enemy.
The above rather factually based description of the synopsis makes The Sun sound like a rather cold and academic treatment of what is nonetheless a fascinating subject, but Sokurov, and Issey Ogata’s performance as Hirohito, take the film beyond such historical perspectives, delving deeper into Hirohito’s personality, adding levels and textures that are much more difficult to describe and define. Certainly this kind of poetic approach comes with its own problems that a purely fact-based treatment would not, and the film does still retain a kind of lofty, dreamlike detachment that can be just as difficult for a viewer to relate to, but it actually lends itself perfectly to the subject matter. The central question that is examined is the schism between Hirohito being regarded as a divinity and his nature as a human being. He is shown as a peaceful man, who is intelligent, educated, poetic and interested in marine biology, who even trapped in a concrete bunker can find time to write poems, offer inspirational advice to his troops and find evidence of the beauty of divine creation and his own nature in his examination of a hermit crab.
Divested of his status as a God by the arrival of the American invaders and the surrender of his army, Hirohito suddenly becomes a much smaller, fragile, almost insignificant figure who is diminished by the vulgarity of the Americans, who he has to speak to in a foreign language as they offer him a gift of boxes of Hershey chocolate bars and clamour around to take photographs of this miniature, Charlie Chaplin-like figure. Having had his every movement catered for by servants, he cuts a pathetic but at the same time sad figure as he struggles with the simple task of having to open a door by himself.
Issey Ogata is magnificent here, giving a truly wonderful performance that nurses the complexities and contradictions of this character and brings them to the surface in a restrained yet studied array of shuffles, twitches, stuttering, gestures and movements. Sokurov’s interpretation of the character and his interior torments are no less fascinating, intriguing and illuminating, not only impressing with striking nightmarish visualisations of the bombing of Tokyo being carried out by monstrous aquatic creatures, but capturing even the smallest details of personality and contradiction in Hirohito’s surroundings and belongings – the photo albums of his family, all descendants of the Sun God, as well as collections of American movie stars, and in the statuettes and busts on his writing table that include Napoleon and Darwin.
With such a treatment, Sokurov’s film transcends the literal without betraying the factual content of the subject, offering intriguing glimpses not only into a complex character at a key moment in the 20th Century, but into the psyche of a whole nation thrown into turmoil by the overthrowing of everything they had believed in. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Alexander Sokurov being able to achieve this quite so effectively and imaginatively.
The Sun is released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. The disc is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Description and evaluation of the picture quality is somewhat difficult, as the film was shot on Digital Video and has clearly undergone much treatment in the way of tinting and effects. Much of what might be perceived as issues with the transfer, the heavy grain, the haziness and softness of the image and the non-naturalistic colours are almost certainly stylistic. I haven’t seen this film theatrically to confirm this, but Sokurov has employed similar techniques in such films as Russian Ark and Father and Son. But that only goes part of the way to explaining the look of the film. Artefact blocking and cross colouration is rife, taking the form of rippling waves in the yellow/purplish backgrounds. Edges are jagged, leading to colour bleed and haloes can sometimes be seen. While the intentional effects and tones of the film make this no doubt a difficult film to encode for DVD, the general instability of the transfer and its artefacting problems can be somewhat distracting.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, which is not really adequate to properly convey certain scenes with layered levels of dialogue and sounds that are common on Sokurov’s films. Converting it to straight 2-channnel stereo gave the film a wider range to work within, but the film surely requires a 5.1 mix to work effectively.
Optional English subtitles are provided in a clear white font for Japanese dialogue in the film. With Sokurov’s careful compositions that make full use of the frame, they do often intrude, but this is unavoidable. English is spoken for large parts of the second half of the film, so this is less of a problem here. There are no subtitles provided for the English dialogue sections.
Extras are thin on the ground for this Artificial Eye release. The Russian Theatrical Trailer (0:58) for the film is included, with optional English subtitles. In the text Production Notes, the director explains his vision for his tetralogy and his approach to Hirohito in The Sun. A Biography is also included for the director.
With an esoteric approach to erudite and grand subject matter – he of course famously made a study of Russian history and culture in a single take sweep of the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum in Russian Ark - Alexander Sokurov has acquired a reputation as a director of intimidating and formidable films. To some extent the reputation is deserved, as those films are often very long, slow and difficult, with dreamlike poetic flourishes and few concessions to standard narrative form. While it has few of the dramatic situations present in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, Sokurov’s treatment of Japanese Emperor Hirohito in The Sun nevertheless adopts an accessible approach that is entirely appropriate for the subject matter and is even more insightful in its examination of what it means to be a human in a position of god-like power. Artificial Eye’s DVD struggles bravely to transfer a rather difficult image and for the most part succeeds in conveying the tone of the film, but it could certainly look and sound better.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:14:47