August 24th, 2005

operesque

Sympathy for the emperor

Amongst Edinburgh's many simultaneous festivals there's a film festival. Last night Hisae and I went out to a new cinema complex on Fountainbridge to see Alexander Sokurov's film "The Sun" (Solntse).

The brilliant actor Issey Ogata plays the Emperor Hirohito just before and after his capitulation to the Americans. It's a Russian film, with dialogue in Japanese and English. I found it very impressive, haunting. The images are sombre and subtle, and Ogata plays Hirohito in a way that made me think of Derek Jacobi's portrayal of the Emperor Claudius, Richard Kapuscinski's book about Haile Selassie (another emperor burdened with divinity) and Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin, the "Idiot".

Hirohito here is a tic-ridden, stiff, naive aesthete uncomfortable with the veneration offered by his retainers, living, even in the darkest hours of Japan's defeat, only for his marine biology collection and his calligraphic poetry compositions. The sombre greeny-grey tint of the film adds to the sense of claustrophobia in the emperor's underground bunker, re-inforced by the unctuous staff and stiff clothes. The emperor is a fan of Darwin who likes to stress, when reminded he's a god, that his body is phylogenically no different from those of humans. General MacArthur is portrayed as a sardonic brahmin secretly amused by Hirohito and determined not to dislodge him from power.

When I got home from seeing "The Sun" there happened by co-incidence to be a BBC documentary on TV dealing with exactly the same events. The documentary said that Hirohito had been complicit with all the aggression of the war, but was whitewashed and rebranded in the space of a few weeks by the Americans, who thought Japan would be much easier to dominate with the emperor still in place. Sokurov's film is much more sympathetic, with the director holding up Hirohito, in an interview with the Moscow Times, as a benign figure:

"For the director, Hirohito's major act was his broadcast calling on his citizens to cease their resistance -- an act that saved the lives of people who were still prepared to die for the lost cause of imperial Japan. "The idea of power being humane is new to Russia," the director said. "We have an idea of power being aggressive, and an entity that hates and does not understand its own people. We need to show other examples."

In the end, this is a Russian film. It's very hard to imagine it being shown in Japan. "The Sun" has, for me, a strong feel of the febrile, melancholic intensity of Tarkovsky, and the ambivalence of writers like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy towards the West, and the modern. There's a scene, for instance, where the emperor is photographed sniffing roses by American GIs who can't believe that this dapper and whimsical little man is Hirohito. They cluster round, calling him Charlie. "Hey, Charlie, looky here! Hey, emperor!" It struck me that Sokurov's film was as sympathetic as it was to Hirohito's doomed otherness because, right now, Russia too has this sense of having lost its menacing, dignified particularity and capitulated to American informality. Russia too knows what it's like to get called "Charlie".