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In his own image
A region 2 DVD review of THE SUN / SOLNTSE by Slarek
 

Alexandr Sokurov's The Sun [Solntse], the third film in his ongoing tetralogy on historically maligned world leaders in times of personal crisis,* is one of those films where a little knowledge of history will certainly enhance your appreciation and understanding of what transpires on screen. Save for the time and place, there is no introductory text to set things up for the viewer, and a degree of general knowledge on the subject is automatically assumed.

We are in Tokyo in the final days of the Second World War, and Emperor Hirohito is sitting down for a meal. Nothing about this everyday activity feels right. The atmosphere is sinister, his immediate staff are uncomfortable. The room is dark and wood-lined with no natural light and Hirohito himself appears to be in a state of nervous exhaustion. As he eats and is afterwards dressed by his butler, the sense of doom increases. The radio brings fleeting news of students who have died trying to defend their country. The butler struggles to fasten buttons he must have dealt with hundreds of times before. As the Emperor looks down at his manservant, he observes that his head is bristling with sweat.

When Hirohito emerges from this gloomy but well specified suite, we realise that it is encased in a concrete bunker, safely protected from the destruction that has been unleashed on the city by American aerial bombing. In a similarly opulent bunker room, he meets with his military advisors. All are sweating and in states of extreme agitation. Some are fighting back tears, old men who struggle out words of military defiance against increasingly impossible odds. It becomes clear that for the Japanese the war is effectively over, and that the Americans will soon be knocking on the gates of the Imperial Palace.

Focussing as it does on the final days of an Axis leader who is facing imminent defeat in WW2, few opportunities have been passed up to draw comparisons between Sokurov's film and Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall [Der Untergang], not least by this film's British distributor Artificial Eye – the DVD cover not only quotes the a BBC review that calls it "A companion piece to DOWNFALL" but also goes with the tagline "Japan, Summer 1945. The downfall of the land of THE SUN." And there certainly are similarities, both in content and focus, but in most other respects these are two vastly different films, the tone of the first twenty minutes or so of The Sun having more in common with David Lynch's Lost Highway than Hirschbiegel's justifiably praised work. Sokurov creates an atmosphere of dream-like dread through the use of slightly skewed camera angles, short dissolves in place of cuts, and a soundtrack that reflects less the turmoil outside of the bunker than the one taking place inside Hirohito's head. There is no instant dramatic hook here, no dark turns of fate and no battle scenes, save for a visually and aurally stunning surrealistic daydream in which a devastated city is circled by bombers shaped like flying fish. Whereas in Downfall, Hitler was reacting to defeat by lashing out at all those around him, Hirohito is in conflict only with himself, with his shame and horror at the destruction of his country and its fall to forces the Japanese had always regarded as racially inferior.

It is difficult if not impossible from a modern western perspective to fully appreciate the status of the Emperor in pre-1945 Japan. He was not regarded simply as a ruler, a monarch, a symbol of national identity, but a God in human form, someone that his subjects would willingly lay down their lives for. This was not a matter of opinion or belief, but regarded as an essential truth. The Emperor was, in the literal sense of the term, divine. One of the conditions of the peace agreement imposed by General MacArthur was that Hirohito renounce his divine status and publicly admit his humanity. The effect on the Japanese people of such a statement was devastating – try to imagine a life-long belief in a God that is shattered when the very God, whose voice you have never heard, announces on the radio that he is just a man after all. For the Japanese people, this was a pivotal moment in history – they did not just suffer military defeat, a cornerstone of their religious faith was essentially destroyed.

It is in the meetings between Hirohito and MacArthur that the film takes its most creative liberties with historical fact, although even then these events fall into the realms of the 'maybe' rather than the 'definitely not'. The first has Hirohito conducting his conversations with MacArthur in English, claiming that he can speak a variety of languages with some eloquence. Although Hirohito's early education was thorough and did, as far as we know, include some English tutoring, there is little evidence I am aware of to suggest that he ever held conversations with MacArthur in anything but Japanese through an interpreter, something substantiated by MacArthur's own published memoirs. In addition, there is the suggestion here that Hirohito's rejection of his divine status was at his own suggestion rather than an enforced condition of his surrender.

But there is clear purpose to these creative decisions, as Sokurov charts Hirohito's transformation from God to man, presented here as a process of gentle liberation, and one that he embarks on voluntarily. His use of English provides MacArthur with an instant indication of Hirohito's willingness to cooperate and capitulate in order to save his people, a conciliatory move that the interpreter, who works for MacArthur but is still loyal to his Emperor, believes will be harmful to the Emperor's status, pleading politely that "a deity in this imperfect world can only speak in Japanese." The common language also allows MacArthur to dismiss the interpreter so that the two men can communicate on a more personal level, which reaches a symbolic peak when Hirohito lights an offered cigar from MacArthur's own in a moment that has an almost sexual intimacy.

Left alone for a short while, the Emperor extinguishes a number of candles as if rehearsing for the everyday tasks that until then have always been performed for him, and even, momentarily, slips into a dreamy waltz. He is observed as he does so by MacArthur, who is, like so many others others throughout the film, watching the man from a place of hiding, through the gap of a half-closed door. Where others have gazed with awe or concern, however, MacArthur shows understanding and perhaps even respect, an attitude that would later prompt him to dissuade President Truman and others from trying Hirohito for war crimes.

Elsewhere, Hirohito's transformation from deity to family man is signalled by the simplest of activities (on arriving at his first meeting with MacArthur, he waits for the door to be opened for him simply because he has never had to open one himself) and the most offbeat of scenes. One of the most memorable is a photo call outside of his palace for American newsmen, where his is initially ignored and then cheerfully poses beside flowers and is likened to Charlie Chaplin, reflecting his curious fascination with the Hollywood movie stars of the period.

What The Sun does share with Downfall is a superb central performance, with Issei Ogata brilliantly capturing the inner turmoil of a man facing what for centuries would have been deemed unimaginable to the Japanese people, constantly battling to suppress emotions that are simply not fit for Gods to display. His ever-quivering mouth also hints at something beyond mere emotional response, perhaps at the meningitis that had remained in the Imperial family through several generations of inbreeding.

The creative speculations about language and responsibility aside, there is an impressive level of authenticity to the presentation of this chapter in Japanese history, from the staging of historically recorded events (the garden photo shoot, the meeting with MacArthur) to the way Hirohito walked and gestured, something a Japanese friend who grew up under his post-war reign described simply as "truth."

Alexandr Sokorov is probably best known in the UK for his 2002 film Russian Ark, a work that very starkly divided opinion, something that may well also happen with The Sun. I've already seen one on-line review that claimed the first twenty minutes or so were boring because "nothing happens." I, on the other hand, was mesmerised from start to finish, as was my Japanese companion, whose opinion I, as an English viewer watching a Russian film about an event of enormous significance in modern Japanese history, particularly valued. In that respect, despite their considerable differences, maybe The Sun is indeed an appropriate companion piece to Downfall after all.

sound and vision

Oooo, this is a tricky one. The picture appears correctly framed at 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, but initial impressions of the picture quality itself are not that favourable – colours are severely muted, sharpness is iffy and grain dances loudly all over the picture. As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that the toned-down colour scheme is very deliberate and that the grain may well very much part of the film's visual aesthetic. Adding to the mix is the knowledge that it was shot in sometimes dimly lit locations on digital video, which produces its own image quality issues. It's a hard call on the DVD transfer simply because at this stage I do not know how much of this is down to an artistic decision on Sokurov's part. We are running a 35mm print of the film in early April and I will have a better idea then of how closely the DVD transfer matches the original, and will update the review accordingly. Given the standard of most of Artificial Eye's output, my money is on this being a fairly faithful transfer, but I'll reserve final judgement until I've seen it on the big screen.

Addition (5 April 2006): Well I've seen the film on the big screen and its no easier a call than before. Without doubt this is one of the darkest films I've ever seen in a cinema – much of it plays almost as if the projector bulb is working at half power. This is deliberate, of course, with the descendant of the Sun God constantly wrapped in the gloom of defeat, even in the exterior scenes. Despite being shot on digital video, detail is actually very good much of the time, although there are some motion smears as the result of the transfer to film. The muted colours and sometimes soft picture are certainly representative of how the film looked in the cinema, although the transfer to digital has clearly picked up on the film grain and enhanced it. Some shots in the film are so dark that frankly I'm surprised they survived the transfer to DVD with any detail at all. On the whole I'd say this was, given the original material, a pretty good transfer – I have a feeling it would take Criterion-like dedication to improve much on it, but there still is room for this to happen.

It's a similar story, as such, with the soundtrack. Although Dolby 2.0 surround and very clear, it is a tad disappointing in that it sits largely front and centre – Sokurov uses sound to powerful effect throughout the film and it just screams out for a widely spread and more inclusive mix. But again, this may well be how it plays in the cinema or was supplied for international release. It did not seriously hamper my involvement in the film – the actual use of sound is too good for that – but given the stunning soundtrack on the region 1 DVD of Russian Ark, I can't help wonder if there there's a beefier mix out there somewhere.

The subtitles, which are removable, are very clear, but a few shots are framed in such a way that the text occasionally obscures Hirohito's face. There is also one rather odd quirk of translation – more than once, when Hirohito is writing or reciting poetry, the word 'sakura', meaning 'cherry blossom', is left curiously translated as, well, 'sakura'. Another mis-translation, 'o-kami', meaning God or deity, has no English equivalent in the context in which it is used here, and so 'your majesty' seems appropriate.

extra features

Not too much here. The original Russian Trailer (0:58) includes brief snippets from pretty much all of the CGI shots in the film (and there aren't many), but gives only a hint at the film's tone.

The Production Notes, though brief, are written by Sokurov himself and are thus of interest.

The Alexandr Sokurov Biography is also a little on the short side, but includes a complete Filmography for the director.

summary

Sokurov's films are the sort that viewers with little patience like to label disparigingly as 'arty' and suggest that those who profess to like them are doing so to look trendy. If that description fits you then don't worry, Final Destination 3 is still playing at the local multiplex. But for those tuned to his approach (who have included in their time Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese), The Sun is a fascinating work, quietly hypnotic in its technique and connecting us on an almost metaphysical level to the inner turmoil of a man in a state of emotional metamorphosis.

The picture on Artificial Eye's DVD is on the rough side, but this may well represent the film as it was shot and shown theatrically, something I hope to confirm following our cinema screening in April. For now it comes cautiously recommended for the film itself, which for my money is one of fascinating works yet of a bold and consistent intriguing film-maker.



* The two previous films were Mololoch (1999), which focussed on Hitler in 1942, and Telets (2001), whose subject was the final days of Lenin.

The Sun
Solntse

Russia / France / Italy / Switzerland 2005
106 mins
director
Alexandr Sokurov
starring
Issei Ogata
Robert Dawson
Kaori Momoi
Shirô Sano
Shinmei Tsuji

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 2.0
languages
Japanese and English
subtitles
English
extras
Trailer
Director's statement
Director biography
distributor
Optimum
release date
20 February 2006
review posted
17 February 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews