Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Brought Down From Imagined Heights

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Because I have been a bit busy of late with an article I'm working on for The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog, I have not been able to blog as much about movies I've seen recently until now. But hey, that's what happens when writing about film isn't your full-time job.

Here's another one for your reading, and my writing, pleasure.

The Sun (2005; Dir.: Alexander Sokurov)


This is one strange movie—odd not because of its subject, but because of the defamiliarizing style Sokurov employs to explore that subject. The subject is Japanese Emperor Hirohito (played in the film by Issei Ogata) during the last days of his rule towards the end of World War II, and Sokurov seems, among other things, interested in highlighting Hirohito's isolation from the outside world of Japan that he supposedly reigns over by divine right. But the way Sokurov pulls us into Hirohito's environment through visual means is idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. He lights a lot of indoor spaces so that those spaces take on the texture of a creepy horror movie; he uses an extremely spare musical score, and at many other points simply relies on sounds of jets flying far overhead the Imperial Palace to create a feeling of desolation; and, to top it off, he films the whole thing in earthy, purposefully smudged-looking digital video, using modern means to make a historical film feel vaguely like something from the early days of 19th-century photography. Neat trick! (Not even Michael Mann was quite as ambitious or imaginative in his use of high-definition video for Public Enemies this year—four years after The Sun, mind you.)

The result of these off-center artistic choices is that The Sun ends up feeling truly out of time and place. It's a purely visceral sensation that suits Sokurov's multifaceted view of Hirohito as a sheltered ruler whose childlike affectations—most notably, his way of moving his mouth like that of a fish trying to breathe (marine life being of particular fascination to him)—may well mask an innermost desire to cast off the role that has been conferred upon him by Japanese society and tradition.

The Sun isn't so much a psychological study as it is an impressionistic portrait not just of the imperial Japanese ruler himself, but of the sizable bridge between the man as a public image and as a flesh-and-blood person. Perhaps its most telling scene, in that respect, is a relatively straightforward one of Hirohito being photographed by Americans as he stands outside the Imperial Palace, tending to his flowers. The scene—in which the photographers snicker amongst themselves, "This is the Emperor?" as Hirohito's aide tries to keep the photographers at a distance—might as well play as a precursor to the ritual of the modern-day paparazzi going after a glamorous Hollywood celebrity. This is the Emperor stripped completely of the kind of God-like mystique that even Hirohito himself sometimes seems to believe. Really, it's merely a literalization of a disconnected feeling Sokurov instills everywhere else in The Sun, both physically and psychically.

Sokurov's vision of Emperor Hirohito's mental landscape in The Sun may strike some as distant and chilly for a while, but the film eventually reveals itself to ultimately take a compassionate stance toward the man. In its closing scene, it's rather cathartic to see Hirohito, liberated from his position of power after agreeing with General Douglas MacArthur to step down, acting almost like a warmly recognizable human being again with his wife. Alas, Hirohito may be ready to move on from being a god in the eyes of men, but, as one last twist suggests, the rest of Japanese society may not be so ready for what they perceive as a majestic fall from grace, not only for him but for Japan in general (this, of course, coming as it does on the heels of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings). Maybe there is indeed a greater tragedy in this story than one man's yearning to be brought down from imagined heights.

(The Sun is now playing at Cinema Village in New York.)

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