Believed to be a divine entity, no less than the living heir of the sun goddess Ameratsu, his royal highness, Emperor Hirohito, (Issei Ogata) was, in actuality, an odd, inward-gazing eccentric, uncomfortable in his own skin, his lips quivering like a carp flopping around on dry land. Hirohito was Japan's longest-serving ruler — his reign, 1926 to 1989, was known as the Showa era — and his rule saw Japan become an economic and cultural superpower, but only after the country went to the very brink of annihilation in World War II.
A historical snapshot as quietly weird and mesmerizing as its subject, the film does much to help humanize this strange, froggy little man, but it doesn't quite excuse him for the epic calamity he presided over. Belonging to the rare, disgraced royalty genre, alongside 1989's The Last Emperor, The Sun finds great drama in a powerful man slowly losing his grip on a world he once mastered.
The film's first half is set in a claustrophobic bunker beneath the palace, where a coterie of servants attend to the emperor's every need and dote on his every movement; he's so sheltered that doorknobs perplex him. It's summer 1945, and the entire Japanese military and government structure is badly fraying, the frontlines are caving, and the enemies are at the gate. Hirohito acts as if he doesn't realize the trouble he's in, blithely quoting his grandfather's tedious poetry while his war ministers devolve into a sweaty, shell-shocked mass of wounded pride and fury. Meanwhile, the emperor makes himself busy indulging his passion for marine biology, and we're treated to the sad and curious sight of him donning a white lab coat and fastidiously examining a bottled hermit crab, as his country smolders and crumbles all around him. Still, he's too smart to believe his own excuses and denials, and can only shrink from his own failure. He's so humbled and small that when Allied photographers arrive at the palace lawn, they're more interested in an exotic crane.
This is the third of director Alexandr Sokurov's intimate examinations of fading dictators, following Moloch (Hitler) and Taurus (Lenin), and largely the most sympathetic, because Hirohito inherited power rather than seized it. Aside from the dubious morality, there are a few other snags: The film proceeds along at a dirge-like pace, occasionally dragging under the weight of formalism and some less-than-convincing CGI shots that break the carefully crafted reality. The makeup on the guy playing Gen. MacArthur is also bad, but the power play going on in the scenes is so fascinating it's easy to forget such minor complaints.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 5-6, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 7. It also shows at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 14. Call 313-833-3237 for more info.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.