Third part in Aleksandr Sokurov's tetrology, following Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2001), focuses on Japanese Emperor Hirohito and Japan's defeat in World War II when he is finally confronted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur who offers him to accept a diplomatic defeat for survival.
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As Japan nears defeat at the end of World War II, Emperor Hirohito starts his day in a bunker underneath the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. A servant reads to him a list of activities for the day, including a meeting with his ministers, marine biology research, and writing his son. Hirohito muses about the impact on such schedules when the Americans arrive but is told that as long as there is a solitary Japanese person living, the Americans will not reach The Emperor. Hirohito replies that he at times feels like he himself will be the last Japanese person left alive. The servant reminds him that he is a deity, not a person, but Hirohito points out that he has a body just like any other man. He later reflects on the causes of the war when dictating observations about a hermit crab, and then about the peace to come when composing a letter to his son. Soon enough General Douglas MacArthur's personal car is sent to bring him through the ruins of Tokyo for a meeting with the supreme commander ... Written by
Aleksandr Sokurov kept the name of the actor playing the Emperor secret, since it is taboo in Japan to play an Emperor on film. Sokurov was afraid for the safety of the actor, after Nagisa Ôshima told him there have been two attempts on his life after he criticized Imperial Japan during WWII. See more »
The beginning of this film is exceptionally dull, half an hour of Hirohito - in an excellent, intriguing performance by Issey Sogata - pottering around, surrounded by his overbearing courtiers. His servants appear genuinely awed by the God-like emperor and can hardly bow low enough to show their total subservience. Everything - buttoning a jacket, placing a knife and fork in his hands - is undertaken for the emperor.
In a curious similarity to Hitler's last days in the chaotic bunker in the recent film Downfall (2005), Hirohito is confined to his own bunker beneath his imperial palace in Tokyo. Yet, there is little sign of the war down here, just a series of dull, ill-lit yet nicely-furnished rooms, all wooden panelling and seemingly very quiet, in the aftermath of the atomic bombs. The strange thing is the almost entirely Westernised clothes and total banality of the emperor's life. Hirohito wanders around like an Edwardian gentleman, attired in exquisite tailoring, all top hat and fine suits, like Bertie Wooster without the humour.
Hirohito studies Darwin and makes a few minor reflections on his role in Japanese imperialism leading up to the war, and the nature of the beast, yet he is basically Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Selles) in the film Being There (1979), a sort of idiot-savant set free into a world of which he has little or no understanding. You just can't believe that Hirohito had any serious role in the whole affair.
Continuing the Darwinist motif, there are little surrealist sequences, dream-like glimpses into Hirohito's mind, with strange flying fish bombers and so forth. In these sections, the film's like a sort of Salvador Dali/Luis Buenuel/Hirohito war and bombing comb. This reminds me of the brilliant Terence Mallick film, The Thin Red Line (1998), with several US troops under-going similar experiences in an island paradise during the terrible war in the Pacific.
This is why I think the film works. The first meeting of Hirohito and MacArthur - in effect, the new emperor of Japan - is full of tension, a clash of two cultures, both incredibly nervous of each other. The two men start bonding and in one incredible moment of film, MacArthur and Hirohito have a sort of cigar kiss, the former lighting the emperor's cigar while puffing on his own, both engaged, head-to-head. It's like they're exchanging the fumes of victory and defeat. The embers. It is like an antidote to Bill Clinton's normal use of cigars.
They get along just fine, like Laurel and Hardy Go to Tokyo, or something. Or Will Hay, for British readers.
Did Hirohito really speak English? In one moment, Hirohito - in true Chauncey Gardiner fashion - goes into the garden for his first-ever photo-shoot. The photographers are squabbling amongst themselves over terms and conditions while, in the background, this peculiar, be-suited gentleman wanders around tending his roses. He proves to be quite a star, however, influences as he is by the American film stars he so idolises.
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