May 30 2010

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Setting Sun

The Sun (Lorber Films)

The third film in Aleksandr Sokurov’s continuing “Men in Power” series, impressionistic portraits of dictators and despots that seek to explore the inner lives of enigmatic figures, observes Japanese Emperor Hirohito on the eve of Japan’s defeat in the final days of World War II. As played by Issei Ogata and observed by Sokurov in the both intimate and alienated settings of his Spartan compound, he’s an almost childlike figure trapped in his identity of a living deity and rituals of deference that further separate him from the world. He’s not even allowed to open a door himself, which leads to an almost comic moment when, leaving a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson), he is momentarily stymied by the workings of a doorknob. Or is he simply savoring the moment, like a child suddenly allowed to play with a forbidden toy?

Issei Ogata in The Sun

Ogata’s performance is a wonder of affectation, distracted (behavior) and moments of dazed confusion, behavior no one would dare comment upon. Yet it’s clear that he is more aware of the contradictions of his position than any of his servants and officials, and that he understands that, in a strange way, Japan’s defeat becomes his opportunity to become a mere mortal. His response is complex, nuanced, and hidden in layers of protocol and ritual, yet it’s obvious that this reluctant Emperor is happiest studying marine biology and rhapsodizing over the wonders of the hermit crab.

Like the first two films in Sokurov’s “Men in Power” series, Moloch and Taurus (focused on Hitler and Lenin, respectively), The Sun is not a conventional biographical portrait by any definition, but rather a reflection in the inner life of the Emperor, a man who was considered a god by his people and treated as such. The style is dreamy and dislocating, purposefully blurring the passing of time and confusing the sense of space. I’m not sure what Sokurov (who serves as his own cinematographer) does to the digital image, but it has both a hyper-immediacy and an alienated disconnection, and at certain junctures, in place of an hard edit, Sokurov employs a rapid dissolve, like some live television trick used to further throw off our sense of engagement. The hazy, at times murky photography suggests both an unreal existence held together by denial and faith and a world overtaken by the smoking ruins of war (a devastated Tokyo, recreated as an equally dream-like special effect, is briefly glimpsed when the Emperor travels to see MacArthur). As such it’s less a history lesson than an intimate and sympathetic rumination on the man behind the power and the entire belief system brought down by defeat in World War II. In Japanese and English with English subtitles. Includes notes on the film by Aleksandr Sokurov, which are in fact excerpts from an interview presented as pages of onscreen text.

5 Comments

  • By warren oates, June 1, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    Anybody know why Kino’s THE SUN isn’t also out on Blu-ray today? I had pre-ordered a Blu-ray from Amazon.com only to be notified that the hi-def release was canceled. I wrote Kino but never received any explanation. Is the transfer better than the fine Artifical Eye one that’s been out in Region 2 for years?

  • By seanax, June 1, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    I never saw the Region Two DVD so I can’t comment upon it. As for the Blu-ray, I never received a Blu-ray announcement of “The Sun” from Kino. The company press release that Kino sent to me only announced the DVD release. The Blu-ray announcement appears to be an Amazon issue, perhaps an error on their part, perhaps a misunderstanding.

  • By warren oates, June 1, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    Thanks for the response. Sokurov is probably my favorite living filmmaker, which is why I care so much. I even have unsubtitled copies–on DVD and VHS–of impossible to see otherwise masterworks like his Madame Bovary SAVE AND PROTECT and DAYS OF ECLIPSE. Actually, the Blu-ray announcement wasn’t an Amazon mistake. Kino confirmed that they themselves canceled it to me and to others on the Criterion boards. They just wouldn’t ever say why or if this is going to be pattern with newer art film releases–dangle the Blu-ray, count the pre-orders and then when no one bites because they haven’t heard of the film because it’s not out yet, take it back. Makes me worry about their upcoming releases of Ursala Meier’s amazing film HOME, for instance, which had also been up from pre-order for a while.

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