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The Sun

the sun

[Rating: 1.5/5]

“The Sun” was made in 2004 by Russian director Alexander Sokurov, but only made it to the USA this past spring.   That’s probably because any and all film distributors had grave reservations on its ability to gather an audience in this country, despite the wild acclaim of the critics.  For once, I agree with those distributors.   This is a long, slow, odd film, and while it has its merits, it’s really too artsy and odd to be considered a very good movie.

Focusing on Japanese emperor Hirohito during the final days of World War II, “The Sun” is either the final part of a trilogy or the third part of a tetrology on modern dictators, depending on whom you ask.   It follows  “Moloch” (1999), about Hitler, and “Taurus”(2000), about Lenin.  I haven’t seen either of those movies, and I can’t say that watching “The Sun” particularly makes me want to go back and watch them.

To begin with, “The Sun” is filmed through an eternally muddy lens that makes it look like a Thatcher-era Masterpiece Theater production.  I cast about the net, looking for reasons why Sokurov would choose to de-clarify his images this way.  Some critics think it’s a comment on the title of the film, a statement that the Sun (that would be Hirohito himself) is failing.   Others thought maybe it’s a comment on the director’s own failing eyesight.   One way or another, it’s an admittedly risky artistic choice that doesn’t work for me.  The movie feels cheap and shoddy and makes me wonder who’s behind the lens and if they know what they’re doing.

We follow around the skinny, odd emperor, who was considered a god in flesh by his people, for about a day and a half.  The Allies are on the doorstep.  The war is lost.   Historically, one of the conditions of Hirohito’s surrender was that he had to publicly renounce his divinity; MacArthur didn’t think the Japanese would stop fighting, against any odds, until they could stop fighting a religious war.   Sokurov seems to take that premise quite seriously; from the opening frames, Issei Ogata plays Hirohito as a being still getting used to the feeling of skin around him.   His lips twitch incessantly.  He moves awkwardly, and isn’t quite sure what to do with doors, or food, or clothes.  He’s kind of hard to watch.

But he’s not quite sure how to be a god, either.  His servants and ministers all but beg him to act like a divine being.   He has a picture book of Hollywood movie stars, and seems particularly fascinated with Charlie Chaplin.  When the Army journalists and photographers show up and the Imperial Palace to snap a few shots for the papers back home, Hirohito emerges, not in regalia amidst pomp, but in a simple suit, with a cane and hat.  He poses comically, and they call him Charlie, to the chagrin of his interpreter and servants.   He can’t seem to figure out what’s expected of him, either as a god or as a man.

He is a great fan of science, particularly marine biology.  He marvels at the miracle of the hermit crab.   In a quietly horrifying scene that marks the awkward transition all of Japan is going through, he calls a noted scientist to visit him.  He discusses the Northern Lights with this scientist, which he has never seen.  He asks the scientist to explain a quandary to him; his grandfather recorded once in his journal that he had seen the Northern Lights from Tokyo.    The scientist is thus put in a very thorny situation.   It would be quite impossible for anyone to see the Northern Lights at the latitude of Tokyo, but it is equally impossible for the emperor, being a deity, to have made a mistake.  He finds his way out through quick thinking and talk of poetry.  One wonders what Hirohito is thinking at this moment; is he looking to put this man to death for blasphemy, or trying to confirm his own suspicions that he and his family aren’t perfect deities after all?

These are the merits of “The Sun.”  It will give you a few things to think about, and plenty of time to think.   For the most part it is slow and dull, overly concerned with observing a very homely and awkward man go about his daily routine.   I don’t think this movie will find much of an audience, and I can’t recommend it.   Sometimes art fails to inspire, impress or entertain.  Sometimes it just falls flat.   This is one of those times.

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