Starring: Issei Ogata, Robert Dawson, Shiro Sano
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
The film: In one of the easily overlooked, yet highly symbolic, scenes of The Sun - a fictional reconstruction of Japanese emperor Hirohito's days at the end of the second world war - the erstwhile sun god is seen (as he did throughout the years his marauding armies charged across Asia) conducting research in his beloved subject of marine biology. Examining a hermit crab, he muses how it's a species that never leaves its own shores, and how the docile crustacean bears a shell that resembles the mask of a valiant samurai.
A mix of melancholy and agitation is in his voice. It's as if he was seeing himself through this little creature. This short monologue sums up well what Aleksandr Sokurov seeks to do in The Sun. Set during the death throes of Japan's campaign for Asian hegemony and the onset of American occupation, it portrays Hirohito (an accomplished and cast-against-type performance by comedian Issei Ogata) as a childlike figure, contemplating a move that would, to him and his people, be nearly like cultural hara-kiri: to renounce his divinity.
Just as in the first two instalments of his trilogy - the subjects of which are Hitler and Lenin - Sokurov is determined to inject humanity into historical figures who have been represented mostly as tyrants. Some would accuse Sokurov of being revisionist, as his Hirohito is a puny, mild-mannered man caught in a maelstrom he can barely understand, let alone control. This is a man whose heart bleeds because it's for 'the love of the people' that he could not stop the war. He maintains an unfailing etiquette and an ingenuous dignity during an uneasy dinner (and subsequent tete-a-tete) with a brutish General Douglas McArthur (left) played by Robert Dawson.
Although Sokurov's take on history might be debatable, the brilliance of his film aesthetics is beyond question. Just as in Moloch and Taurus - the pieces on Hitler and Lenin - he moulds the world in The Sun with crisp yet disturbingly grey-tinted visuals, punctuated by a soundtrack with occasional works by Bach and Wagner. But mostly he employs silence, spiced up with hissing white noise. Hirohito's days are made to resemble an endless bad dream, as he moves from room to deserted room, faced with chamberlains who are as reverent towards their deity as they are grief-stricken by the firestorms unfurling in the outside world.
The extras: A five-star film comes sadly with nondescript - and near non-existent - special features. The near-compulsory trailer and filmographies aside, the only thing of note here is Sokurov's production notes, which explain - if in a rather banal fashion - his motives behind The Sun.
The verdict: Controversial yet visually mesmerising, The Sun is a must-see (and must-own) for those interested in either history or filmmaking.