Why Japanese will be last to see Alexander Sokurov's film on Emperor Hirohito

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The Independent Culture

The third in a trilogy of films by the Russian director Alexander Sokurov that has already depicted pivotal moments in the lives of Hitler and Lenin, The Sun dramatises Japan's defeated wartime emperor Hirohito's fateful meeting with General Douglas MacArthur. Such is the sensitivity in Japan concerning the depiction of the imperial family on film that a movie that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2005, and was released in the UK last summer, has only lately found a Japanese distributor, who will be giving The Sun a limited Tokyo release "some time later this year".

If the most highly acclaimed Russian film-maker alive today had made a film about, say, the Duke of Windsor's flirtation with the Nazi leadership, it seems inconceivable that such a film wouldn't be snapped up by a British distributor. And it's not even as if Sokurov is that critical of Hirohito. The Sun, which examines the emperor's passage from divinity to constitutional monarch, and how he escaped being executed as a war criminal, largely takes the traditional airbrushed historical view of Hirohito. It depicts him as an unworldly, peace-loving man, an expert in marine biology, who was swayed by his military chiefs into imperial conquest and, eventually, the Second World War. This benign interpretation is hotly contested by historians, who claim that Hirohito rubber-stamped the invasion of Manchuria and attack on Pearl Harbor, and could have ended the slaughter much earlier had he so wished.

However, it is not Sokurov's take on Hirohito that is stirring up controversy in Japan, but that an actor has dared to depict the emperor at all. There is a taboo in Japan about playing a man who was considered to be a living god and whose voice was only heard for the first time when he went on the radio on 15 August 1945 to persuade his devoted subjects to give up the struggle. Sokurov, who first considered using a non-Japanese actor in the part, acknowledges the difficulty. "We met with historians and scholars who all said we wouldn't find a Japanese actor to play the emperor," he says. In the event, Sokurov found the 46-year-old comedian Issei Ogata. "Playing an emperor is not my style," Ogata said recently. "I do regular middle-aged guys, like taxi drivers."

With a cotton ball tucked under his upper lip to give it the requisite fleshiness, Ogata's Hirohito is closely observed - as one would expect from the director of Russian Ark, which famously consisted of just one long single take. "It was difficult for the Japanese actors. I had to keep explaining to them why we were depicting the inner feelings of the emperor," says Sokurov, who filmed The Sun at St Petersburg's Lenfilm Studios. Here, he recreated the luxurious bunker in which Hirohito lived after his palace in Tokyo, along with his cherished marine-biology laboratories, was destroyed by US bombers in 1943.

"Piecing together the details of the bunker almost seemed like archaeological work at times," says Sokurov. "It was like collecting fragments of a mosaic. I was able to speak to some of his servants, and people who were close to the imperial court, but I can't give any names because some of them prefer to remain in the shadows."

Sokurov can't say that he wasn't warned about the sensitive nature of his subject matter. The director Nagisa Oshima told him of his experiences after he had criticised Japan's role in the war in a short television interview. "A few days later, someone stabbed him in the back," says Sokurov, "and then he was shot at." Little wonder, then, that the identity of the actor playing Hirohito was a closely guarded secret until filming was completed.

"I hadn't thought about the dangers when I accepted," says Ogata. "But after I'd finished I started to get scared." Ogata hasn't given any interviews to the Japanese press, something that may change later this year when the film goes on release. The Sun is lucky to have a Japanese distributor at all. "Just a mention of the emperor, and Japanese movie companies get scared," says Kazuo Hara, who directed a controversial 1987 documentary, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, in which veterans railed against Hirohito for refusing to take responsibility for the war.

The first dramatised depiction of the emperor wasn't until 1967, when a kabuki actor Koshiro Matsumoto played him in Japan's Longest Day, about Hirohito's dilemma over whether to surrender. "But he was only filmed from behind or in long shot," says Sokurov.

In fact, there is evidence, more than 60 years after the end of the war, that, despite general apathy, conservative politicians are trying to reassert the imperial family's symbolic guardianship of Japanese identity. The current emperor, Akihito, was sent to Saipan last June, the first visit by an emperor to any of the Pacific islands once occupied by the Japanese. And a bill was recently passed changing a national holiday to Showa Day, in honour of Hirohito's birthday.

In this context, Sokurov's film could be seen as part of a general rehabilitation of Hirohito's record. "As emperor, he gave a lower worth to ideas of national honour than to saving people's lives," says the director. "I try to look at history in the Shakespearian tradition - how a small, puny man with a thin voice had the courage to refuse the past and secure a worthwhile future for his country."

'The Sun' is released on DVD by Artificial Eye on 20 February