Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Sun

Following portraits of Lenin (Taurus) and Hitler (Moloch), Russia’s Aleksandr Sokurov shifts his gaze to the land of the rising sun, where bunker-bound Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata) is waiting out the end of the Pacific war. Shooting in candlelit half-dark so extreme that the subtitles often cast the brightest glow—an effect that will likely prove impossible to translate to the small screen—Sokurov zooms in on Hirohito’s U.S.-mandated un-deification, the key to breaking the will of Japan’s notoriously tenacious troops.


Intriguingly, Sokurov takes Hirohito’s renunciation of divine status at face value; ceaselessly twitching his upper lip and running his fingers over the lacy roughness of a brocade tablecloth, the virtuosic Ogata assumes his humanity bit by bit. His lips never stop moving, as if he’s still getting used to his corporeal form, and the tic implicitly connects him to the marine life he studies as a hobby.

Seen through a Stygian haze, as if the ash of Hiroshima still lingers in the air, the movie’s faintly glowing images serve as an ironic echo on its title, but they also reflect the director’s fading eyesight, a detail that lends added poignancy to the ruminations on bodily decay. But though the emperor’s subjects are loath to see him relinquish his godhood—even the Japanese-American soldier who translates for General MacArthur urges him to resist—Hirohito seems almost eager to lay down his mantle. Manifestly confronted with his own fallibility, he seems to crave the quiet puttering of an elderly retiree, although he’s still reluctant to take on such mundane tasks as opening doors.


Although it predates Sokurov’s Alexandra, which is similarly concerned with sifting through the rubble, The Sun took four years to reach American theaters, but the long delay hasn’t diminished the force of Sokurov’s experimentation. Serving as his own director of photography, he exploits the techniques of digital postproduction and even conjures a vision of nuclear annihilation as seen through Hirohito’s mind’s eye, with wriggling carp taking the place of B-52 bombers. The result is not to make the emperor sympathetic so much as it is to tug at the mask of despotic glory. In the end, he is only a man.

Share This Story