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Aleksandr Sokurov, The Sun [Solntse] (2004)

reviewed by José Alaniz©2005

Mythopoeia, "Metahistory," and Aleksandr Sokurov’s Sun (Solntse), 2004

Aleksandr Sokurov continues his “Men of Power” tetralogy with Sun, an operatic, visually arresting, romanticized, ultimately uplifting historical fantasia “about” the last days of World War II in Asia. The Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata), regarded through faith and tradition as divine, must relinquish his God-like status to secure peace for his long-suffering people. In a series of meetings with the supreme commander of the American invading forces, general Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson), as well as through much personal introspection (Sokurov vanquishes all the rest of world cinema in the representation of anguished solitude), Hirohito comes to abandon his accustomed heavenly role and embarks on life as a mortal man―earning MacArthur’s respect in the process.

As those familiar with Sokurov’s oeuvre will doubtless sense, this bare-bones recitation of Sun’s plot does little to convey the film’s poetic power, its masterly visual flourishes, complex layered soundtrack, and daunting symbolic scheme. I should add that I consider this film the best of the “Men of Power” tetralogy so far. The dry synopsis, however, does relate an important point about this film and its companion pieces Moloch (Molokh, 1999) and Taurus (Telets, 2001): under no circumstances should they be held up to the historical record. They quickly wilt and blow away. We will thus dispense with the question of “history” at the outset.

In his Sight and Sound review, Geoffrey Macnab flatly calls the “Men of Power” series “an inherently perverse project.” Focusing on the downfalls of great dictators in a semi-tragic “humanist” mode, some argue, elides the very real question of the atrocities committed at their behest, Hirohito included. Sun makes no mention, for example, of the 1937 “Rape of Nanjing,” when at least 300,000 Chinese POWs were massacred by the Japanese army, presumably under orders from their Emperor. Moreover, although Sokurov’s longtime screenwriter Iurii Arabov based his script on historical records, he has noted that the director softened its “grotesqueries.” [1]

The American historian David Lowenthal has long raged against the “heritage industry,” which subsumes simplistic stories about the Founding Fathers (Washington and the cherry tree), misleading Civil War re-enactments, and the animatronic Lincoln robot at Disneyland, under a rubric essentially indistinguishable from feel-good myth. These examples, like Sun, tend to accentuate the positive and take on a quasi-religious kitsch reverence for their subjects, to the point of occluding a messier historical record. Heritage is the popular, politically-expedient version of history, a category in which Sokurov’s “Men in Power” or his Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002), whatever their inherent virtues, all too readily fit. Tat'iana Moskvina, in her Iskusstvo Kino review, simply calls what Sokurov does “metahistory” (30).

In a similar vein, Sokurov’s defenders, in effect, merely remind audiences that they are watching a movie. Writing on Moloch and Taurus, Tat'iana Akindinova notes:

"Sokurov’s films are works of fiction, and although they are based on a scrupulous study of documentary materials, a meticulous reproduction of the historical subjects’ appearance and milieu so that their accuracy approaches that of documentary cinema, they do present themselves, of course, as completely original, creative interpretations of fateful events in German and Russian history. Hitler and Lenin here are artistic portraits; to seek out literal one-to-one correlations with the real persons depicted is no more justified than to verify a painted image against a photograph." (60)

All the same, a further complication arises in Sokurov’s latest film: while the political stakes of representing Hirohito (“accurately” or not) may seem a non-issue to most Westerners, the Russian director stepped on a decades-old Japanese taboo against the artistic depiction of the former Emperor, who died in 1989. Sokurov took the matter seriously enough that he kept his leading actor Ogata’s name secret throughout the production―only revealing it at Sun’s debut during the Berlin Film Festival―for fear of assassination attempts by Japanese nationalists.

In any case, suffice it to say that a “historical” reading is the least interesting and rewarding way to approach this work, and certainly far from Sokurov’s own goals. At the same time, Sun is a fascinatingly self-conscious meditation on history, mythology, and how we come to understand/construct the past. It advances this “metahistorical” theme through more conventional strategies, such as formal play, literary/mythological allusion, metaphors of the body, and references to other Sokurov works, as well as through more problematic means, such as racial/ethnic stereotype, Orientalism, and, as already mentioned, the elision of counter-narratives (for example, Hirohito the War Criminal).

In his influential 1980 essay “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Hayden White highlights the critical role of narrative in organizing a coherent and “full”―albeit fanciful―image of life. Historiographers have since taken up the issue of narrativity in the crafting of the “story” of the past. Sokurov in Sun just as penetratingly points out the role visual/aural schema―the “look” and “sound” of the past―play in any cinematic exposition of temporally remote events. Ogata’s performance and Sokurov’s manipulation of form bring Hirohito and his era magically to life.

Relying, as usual, on classical painting for inspiration, Sokurov bathes the film in a brownish-ocher sepia tone, which both recalls weathered old photographs and the work of Rembrandt. Safe from bombs raining down on Tokyo above, Hirohito roams his massive underground complex, a murky space rendered in German Expressionist shadows, cold brick and grainy smudges of light.

But a still-neglected aspect of Sokurov’s work, sound design, here serves subtly to enhance the ambience of “age”: often a soft “crackle” can be heard, the aural equivalent of the sepia tone―almost as if we were listening to an old phonographic record. Sokurov does something still more daring. Early in the film, whenever Hirohito speaks, his dialogue seems woefully out of synch with his lips, which he is constantly moving in odd, faintly gruesome spasms. But what seems a gross technical error soon reveals itself to be a physical tick that Sokurov intends as a sign of the “God” Hirohito’s strained and unbalanced relationship with his own physiology. [2] This is the unifying theme of the “Men of Power” series. Each film depicts its “fallen” hero in a state of all-too-human bodily compromise: Hitler suffers constipation and other ills in Moloch, while a dying Lenin raves, even famously baring his buttocks, in Taurus. One Russian reviewer, Anton Kostylev, finds a more morbid symbol in Hirohito’s lip-munching: it resembles that of a fish out of water, gasping for breath as the Americans near. We might also liken the Emperor’s incessant mouth-work to a prayer he never stops reciting.

In a more self-conscious vein, during an early scene the sound serves to make ironic commentary on an otherwise “heritage-like” episode. As the Emperor meets with his general staff, which poignantly reports on the tireless patriotism of the Japanese troops despite many reverses, we hear the pencils of scribes furiously noting everything down―history stepping in, already at work, dutifully recording the words upon which this scene of Sun would be based, 60 years later. The film here addresses its own constitution out of, in part, a “script” that it shows (and lets us hear) being written. Sokurov has noted that his films have the rhythm and solid foundation of literature; here his work is literally text-based.

The sepia tone, together with the sound of a clock ticking, also denote the transformation of life into history during a scene in which Hirohito reflects on some old photos: he is already going from flesh and blood to “moving picture.” In a long shot towards the end of the film, the process seems complete: the Emperor, having renounced his divinity, appears in a door frame, seen by a servant. Even as the camera pans, his figure remains within the confines of the entryway, already “framed” as visual history. Though, of course, the entire film serves as such an aesthetic frame around the past.

Another way in which Sun magically recreates history has to do with its choice of close-ups; though Hirohito mostly appears in medium shots (in private) and longer shots (in public), at several notable points Sokurov gives us what we might call “faktura” close-ups: of the hair and sweat on a servant’s head, the ink of a calligraphic exercise, gloves. These highlight the rich texture and minute details of a world long past, almost supernaturally reanimated. We could relate this to Sokurov’s ghostly “resurrection” of Anton Chekhov in Stone (Kamen', 1992) and to a number of his other works. [3]

The “faktura” shot combines more subtly with the “history” theme when the child-like Hirohito, who has a passion for marine biology, joyfully inspects a very unusual crab under a microscope. Dorippe granulata, found only along certain parts of Japan’s coast, has a carapace that strongly resembles the face of a Samurai warrior (Sokurov lovingly shows us the details of the carapace in extreme close-up). But only Japanese medievalists (or fans of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, where I first came across the following) will know that this very crab ties in with another important episode in Japanese history, which directly relates to the current emperor’s plight. Japanese fishermen today avoid eating the crustacean, partly to commemorate the 24 April 1185 Battle of Danno-ura. During this encounter, decisive for the island’s future, the Genji Samurai wiped out a rival clan, the Heike. Rather than be captured, the seven-year-old Emperor of the Heike (and all Japan), named Antoku, chose to drown himself in the ocean along with many of his warriors. A legend arose that the defeated samurai continue to haunt the ocean in the shape of the crabs that Hirohito takes such delight in studying.

The story of Antoku, from The Tale of the Heike, depicts the fate of a “boy of power,” clearly quite similar to that of Hitler in Moloch and Lenin in Taurus: those who wield power over others eventually lose it, ignominiously, often with their lives. That they go on being remembered (as ghosts, monsters, crabs) brings only cold comfort. Hirohito will escape that trap: he will give up his powers peacefully, willingly, go on to live as a man (not a God), and even rule as a figurehead for another 44 years. It is the beginning of that “better” solution that we, viewers of Sun, watch unfold.

As in his other films, Sokurov also relies on literary models for his metahistorical recrafting of the past. The Death of Ivan Il'ich by Leo Tolstoi seems a key source: a humorous scene showing the Emperor with a nervous guest echoes the uncooperative-furniture episode from the novel, when Petr Ivanovich and Praskovia Fedorovna discuss money during the lead character’s wake; Hirohito several times points to a “foul taste” or “odor” in his mouth, like Ivan Il'ich. Moreover, the film shares the novella’s disconcerting representation of the dying process through imagery of birth/excrement. The Emperor’s claustrophobia-inducing underground bunker complex, which we see him traverse in endless tracking shots (not unlike those in Russian Ark), come to resemble an esophagus, intestines, or birth canal through which he is being “passed.” He crosses door after door, guided around corners that reveal still more tunnels, and at one point comes to a dead end (constipation?). Even his room looks like the narrow corridors, due to a slanted ceiling. Each time the Emperor emerges from this “birth corridor” aboveground, through a hatch, he assumes a new persona: white-coated scientist; precocious boy on his way to see MacArthur, “Charlie Chaplin” (as he is christened by American photographers).

The “birth canal” imagery ties in with another of the film’s strategies for picturing the past: classical mythopoeia. Hirohito must always ascend to reach freedom; his Emperor’s role is an underworld prison and it is portrayed as such, in infernal hues. As his every move and utterance is governed by stultifying ritual, so the “heavenly” space above is full of spontaneity, mischance, and error (as when American soldiers mistake him for a servant).

Sun makes an interesting companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), which portrays the life of the 14th (current) Dalai Lama: both films take inspiration from the life-story of the Buddha. The boyish Hirohito, after all, journeys from a life of ignorance and sheltered luxury to the “real” world of suffering and death, as represented by the devastated Tokyo he sees on his drives to meet with the general. Like Prince Siddhartha, venturing outside his father’s palace, he witnesses what until then he had never imagined. Of course, in his path to enlightenment, the Buddha gave up his wife and child, while at the end of Sun Hirohito’s personal “reward” for relinquishing power is a reunion with his wife and family, as in other myths.

During the staff-meeting scene, the Emperor appears at the center of a shot composed in homage to Leonardo’s Last Supper, with the difference that he sits much farther apart from the others, signaling the loneliness of power. Once Hirohito leaves, Sokurov shows the empty throne from a 180-degree opposite view―which renders the imposing seat of divinity far larger than the people assembled before it. An additional Christian allusion (Christ being another God who ultimately “gave up” his divinity to dwell among men) appears as an Albrecht Dürer print of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which, through a Sokurovian optical trick, grows appallingly larger from one shot to the next. Finally, the Emperor’s likening to Charlie Chaplin―underscored by the impressive, graceful performance of Ogata, known in Japan as a comic actor―intertextually inducts him into a modern pantheon of cinematic immortals.

At the same time, Sokurov’s broad-brush mythmaking seems trite and unnecessarily simplistic. At one point, the Emperor turns a bust of Napoleon―Napoleon!―to face away from him. And do all Americans have to behave like disrespectful brutes (the soldiers, photographers) or arrogant world-conquerors? MacArthur at one point says, “We can buy what we need from other nations. We don’t need to fish. What can you buy?” In one particularly overloaded symbol, American troops are shown manhandling a royal heron on the Emperor’s grounds; one of them almost seems to be simulating sex with it. The Americans are also literally giants: one shot shows them standing, heads cropped out of the image, while the shorter Japanese remain in frame. This recalls a shot from The Second Circle (1990), in which towering doctors, their heads in deep shadow, lackadaisically instruct Malianov where to take his father’s dead body. And, of course, Americans are always in a hurry: “Speed it up”; “Let’s just get outta here.”

But if some may find Sokurov’s Occidentalism trying, his well-intentioned but crude Orientalism will strike others as simply racist. As Moskvina has noted, this is not at all a Japanese vision of Japan, but an idealized Sokurovian one: “The Emperor is in every sense a child of his astonishing island culture: reserved, toy-like, child-like, ceremonial, magnificent, complex, refined; Sokurov’s Japan is a Japan of the soul, which has produced an air-tight miracle on a mysterious island...” (29).

Such simple-minded inventions, as already mentioned, only serve to occlude more complex facts, among them the Japanese empire’s expansionist, racist-driven wars in Asia, which led to the deaths of millions in the 1930s-1940s. Sokurov does not show the “miraculous” Hirohito at the center of those policies. Moloch and Taurus portray their (white) subjects in a more complicated fashion, since the viewer constantly swings from sympathy for the common physical decline of Hitler and Lenin, to revulsion at their bodies as well as their crimes. Not so with Sun; the film’s “positivity” vis-à-vis Hirohito is never in dispute―Sokurov seems practically to cheer him on. Compare, for example, the shots of Hitler and Lenin in bed with those of Hirohito: the former seem more grotesque, more tormented, more pressed down by the heavy covers, than the lithe, child-like, inoffensive Emperor, whose full body lies, dreaming, in view. The others (Hitler’s deep-shaded eyes, Lenin’s dome-like skull―interestingly, both played by Sokurov’s frequent collaborator Leonid Mozgovoi) are pure Bosch or Breugel, while the bumbling but charming Hirohito recalls Walt Disney. But that makes him no less an inhuman caricature. [4]

Many viewers of Sokurov’s Sun will especially retain two scenes of this flawed, boldly operatic, and finally absorbing film. One shows a horrified Hirohito recalling a nightmare: bombs explode all over the screaming city of Tokyo, dropped by fish swimming surreally through the hellish night. This is the war, seen in terms Hirohito’s puerile imagination can fathom; not since Tarkovskii’s The Sacrifice (1986) have I witnessed such a disturbing vision of apocalypse. The other scene comes at the very end, when the now-mortal Hirohito, reunited with his wife, recites a poem he has been composing: “Snow in winter is like a cherry tree [sakura] in March,/Indifferent time wipes out the one and the other.”

The simple verse, of course, neatly encapsulates the theme of history and its puniness in the face of time. It also signals Hirohito’s acceptance of his own finitude, which in at least this case leads to a good outcome for him and his country. Sokurov has said that all of the world’s evil stems from men seeking to reject their own mortality; here he provides a counter-example. But the poem, finally, contains the kernel of another much-neglected aspect of Sokurov’s poetics: his sense of fun. For Hirohito’s verse just happens to contain the word for tree, “sakura.” It hardly seems a homophonic coincidence―more like a wink in the audience’s direction from an auteur whose reputation for moroseness and gloom have attained worldwide stature. 

Inserting your own name into a Japanese poem? Making a multilingual pun as part of a happy ending? Why, Aleksandr Nikolaevich, that’s almost Nabokovian.

José Alaniz, University of Washington, Seattle


Sun, Russia, Italy, France, Switzerland, 2004

Color, 110 minutes

Director: Aleksandr Skurov

Screenplay: Iurii Arabov

Cinematography: Aleksandr Sokurov

Sound: Sergei Moskhov

Art Director: Elena Zhukova

Cast: Issei Ogata, Robert Dawson, Kaori Momoi, Shiro Sano, Shinmei Tsuji, Taijiro Tamura, Georgy Pitskhelauri

Producers: Igor' Kalenov, Andre Sigle, Marco Muller

Production: Russia (Nikola Film, Proline Film), Italy (Downtown Pictures), France (Mact Productions), Switzerland (Reforma Film); with the participation of CTC Television and Lenfilm and the support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography (Russia), RAI Cinema and Instituto Luce (Italy), and Centre National de la Cinématografie (France)


Works Cited


Akindinova, Tat'iana. “Moral' i politika v sovremennom iskusstve: razmyshliaia nad fil'mami A. Sokurova Molokh i Telets.” Aleksandr Sokurov na filosofskom fakul'tete. Ed. Elena Ustiugova. St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg State University Philosophy Department, 2001. 60-63.

Lowenthal, David. Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. NY: Free Press, 1996.

Maliukova, Larisa. “Solntse, ustydivsheesia svoikh piaten.” Novaia Gazeta (21 February 2005).

Mcnab, Geoffrey. “Aleksandr Sokurov’s new film is an upbeat character study of the Japanese emperor Hirohito.” Sight and Sound 15.9 (September 2005): 12-14.

Moskvina, Tat'iana. “Odinochestvo sovershenstva.” Iskusstvo kino 5 (2005): 27-31.

Ustiugova, Elena, ed. Aleksandr Sokurov na filosofskom fakul'tete. St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg State University Philosophy Department, 2001.

White, Hayden. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 7.1 (Autumn 1980): 5-27.


Endnotes

1] Maliukova. Sokurov himself, with statements like the following, has only spurred critics of his approach to history: "When in Japan, I can’t imagine that these people could have been capable of committing all those [atrocities]. I can understand why the kamikaze, who threw themselves at enemy aircraft carriers, existed in Japan. But how could the Japanese, with all their suppressed delicacy, tradition of soft voices, smiles, bows―how could they have carried out all that they did carry out?" (Ustiugova 15). I briefly deal with Sokurov’s orientalist construction of Japan elsewhere in the review. 

2] “Every child knows the Emperor is the offspring of the Sun,” he is told. “But my body,” he replies, “―it’s the same as yours.” 

3] While we’re at it, we should also mention at least a few of Sokurov’s many self-references in Sun. The concluding shot, which depicts a hazy Turner-like sun rising over a devastated Tokyo with birds flying past, resembles the 30-minute “nature study” shot in Part One of Spiritual Voices (Dukhovnie golosa, 1995); Hirohito’s radio seems tuned to the same odd noises as Malianov’s in The Second Circle (Krug vtoroi, 1990); some of the documentary-like footage resembles images from The Lonely Voice of Man (Odinokii golos cheloveka, 1980; released 1987); we hear the same buzzing of flies as in Mother and Son (Mat' i syn, 1997). 

4] Moskvina simply calls the image of Hirohito in Sun a “hieroglyph.” For a more profound, if no less fond, Sokurovian view of Japan, see his lovely documentary A Humble Life (Smirennaia zhizn', 1997).

Pictures courtesy of Artificial Eye, UK


Aleksandr Sokurov, The Sun [Solntse] (2004)

reviewed by José Alaniz©2005

09/10/05