When Dusk Finally Settled on the Emperor: Alexander Sokurov's 'The Sun'

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At one point in the Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s beautiful and eccentric movie “The Sun,” the emperor Hirohito begins enthusing about a preserved hermit crab, the sounds of war planes having subsided. “What a miracle!” Hirohito (Issey Ogata) marvels, staring at the pale, pickled, seemingly unremarkable crustacean as an assistant transcribes the emperor’s comments. “What heavenly beauty!” As Hirohito gazes at the crab, you sense that he is acknowledging a fellow specimen, a communion accentuated by the smudged visuals and murky palette that suggest that all this is taking place inside a dirty aquarium.

Much of “The Sun” in fact unfolds inside the contaminated confines of Hirohito’s palace in the period leading up to and following Japan’s surrender to the United States in 1945. An act of historical imagination, the film is the third in Mr. Sokurov’s trilogy about dictators, which began with “Moloch” (1999), featuring Hitler and Eva Braun at home in the Bavarian Alps, and continued with “Taurus” (2001), about the dying Lenin. Although “The Sun” borrows from history in sweep and detail — down to the statuettes of Darwin, Lincoln and Napoleon that Hirohito kept — the movie is best understood not in banal docudrama terms but as an impressionistic portrait of a man who, stripped of power, is revealed as grotesquely human. (First shown at the Berlin Film Festival four years ago, “The Sun” is finally receiving its welcome American theatrical release, which means that one of the best movies of 2005 is now also one of the best of 2009.)

The humanization begins with scenes of everyday life in the palace and Hirohito being fed, fussed over and dressed by his bowing, ubiquitous aides. One (Shiro Sano), a chamberlain whose watchful gaze seems closer to that of a prison guard (or nanny), rattles off the royal schedule, which includes “time for private thought.” And what happens to the schedule, Hirohito asks, if the Americans show up. The chamberlain forcefully dismisses the idea, invoking the “humiliation” of 1924, a reference to the Immigration Act of 1924, which excluded Asian immigrants from entering the United States. “Ah, so” (“I see”), Hirohito responds opaquely (but what does he see?), his mouth fluttering open and closed, open and closed, as if he were a fish breathing underwater.

The Americans do show up, as they must, and hustle Hirohito off to meet General MacArthur (Robert Dawson), who, over the course of two sustained meetings, amicably entertains and gently intimidates the emperor amid oblique references to his plans for the American occupation. Working from Yury Arabov’s brilliantly distilled and elliptical screenplay, Mr. Sokurov moves in and around the two men, his camera shuttling between the twinned foreign landscapes of MacArthur’s gently amused face and Hirohito’s implacable mask. After their first meeting ends, Hirohito walks away from the general, only to pause awkwardly in front of the shut door: the god, you realize, has never had to open a door himself, a moment of pathetic comedy that forecasts a far more profound threshold-crossing: his renunciation of his divinity...

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