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Friday, October 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Hirohito's Japan gives up in The Sun
Empire in ruins
Chilling and surreal.
Chilling and surreal.

In times of crisis, it's important to stick to your routines. This much I take from The Sun, Russian director Alexander Sokurov's film about Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata), who ruled amid Japan's aggression and defeat in World War II. The film begins in the closing hours of the war, as a scraping, bowing servant - one of many - recites the day's schedule. First, a meeting with government ministers. Later, a nap.

It's a desperate time. Allied forces are closing in, and the navy has surrendered. Government business is carried out in a claustrophobic bunker. But the emperor doesn't let his nation's impending defeat get in the way of what's truly important: looking at photo albums of American movie stars and conducting research into marine biology.

The Sun is a fascinating look at imperial isolation. It's part of Sokurov's series about despots, which includes Moloch and Taurus, about Hitler and Lenin, respectively. (Sokurov is best known here for 2002's Russian Ark.) As played by Ogata, the emperor is a drawn little man who continually works his lips in strange, gasping motions. As catastrophe unfolds, he really does take time to go into the lab, put on a white coat and muse aloud over a crab, as an assistant writes down his every word. This remarkable speech turns from ocean life to the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, which excluded Asians.

As U.S. troops enter Tokyo, the stillness of the lush palace grounds is broken by the joshing of American soldiers, who have come to take the emperor away. In a startling transition, he is driven through the war-devastated city to Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson). In their meetings, MacArthur is respectful and sly. "How are the emperor's children?" he asks. "What's it like being a living god?" That question makes Hirohito mournful: There's no one to share his enthusiasm for the catfish. It's one in a series of disturbing Hirohito non sequiturs.

The Sun is chilling, and at times it is almost surreal. Outside the palace, Japanese citizens languish in a landscape of smoldering rubble. Inside, emperor and empress (Kaori Momoi) struggle to remove her perfect little hat, which is pinned to her head just so.

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