Los Angeles Times: Sokurov film on Hirohito
Jonathan M. Hall
Tue Jun 14 23:10:28 EDT 2005
This LA Times article might be of interest to KineJapanners.
Los Angeles Times, Saturday May 28, 2005
A1, A4, & A5
A Royal Audience at Last?
A new film courts controversy in Japan simply by portraying Hirohito. And
despite its generous take, it might not reach theaters.
By Bruce Wallace, Times Staff Writer
TOKYO ? Laughing too easily and smoking too furiously, Issey Ogata hardly
looks like someone capable of impersonating an emperor.
Ogata is Japan's master impressionist, a stage comedian who has built a
career on a repertoire of Everyman characters: the suffering commuter, the
inept husband, the fastidious bureaucrat.
"Playing an emperor is not my style, really," says Ogata, 46, lounging at a
Tokyo hotel. "I do regular middle-aged guys, like taxi drivers."
But regal instincts apparently lurk within him too. Dress him up in a World
War II military uniform, tuck a cotton ball under his upper lip for
fleshiness and ? click: Ogata finds the inspiration to clench his facial
muscles into the impassive mask of Hirohito, Japan's 20th century emperor of
war and peace.
Ogata steps out of comedy and into this imperial role in "The Sun," Russian
director Alexander Sokurov's new film examining Hirohito at Japan's moment
of existential crisis. The film centers on the extraordinary events of
August 1945, when Japan was burning, the Americans were at the gate and this
remote man of supposedly divine descent was wondering what Gen. Douglas
MacArthur had in store for him and his country.
Yet what is most remarkable about this dramatization is not the subject
matter ? which raises no questions about wartime complicity, sticking
instead to the conventional airbrushed history of a peace-loving emperor who
saved lives by surrendering in defiance of his generals ? but the fact that
Ogata dares portray Hirohito at all.
In the 60 years since those terrible days, there has been a virtual taboo
in Japan against putting an actor in the emperor's shoes. In movies about
the Pacific war, Hirohito has been the ghost in the frame, the leading man
who is almost never seen. Sokurov's film is the first to put Hirohito at the
center of a reenactment of those days, filming him up close and showing his
personality tics as he agonizes over how to save Japan, and himself.
"For some reason, we subconsciously avoid dealing with the emperor in our
movies," says Kazuo Hara, director of a contro-
BEGIN p A4
versial 1987 documentary, "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On," in which a
bitter veteran rails against Hirohito for refusing to take responsibility
for the war. The emperor didn't appear even in Hara's film, which was never
shown on TV here and was relegated to small theaters after major Japanese
distributors balked at screening it.
"Just a mention of the emperor and Japanese movie companies get scared,"
The roll call of Japanese films featuring a Hirohito character doesn't take
long. "The Tragedy of Japan," a 1947 documentary that accuses the emperor of
being a war criminal, was swiftly banned ? by the American occupiers. It
collided with MacArthur's desire to cast Hirohito as a pacifist whose
imperial aura had been exploited by Japanese militarists.
Postwar newsreel footage of Hirohito that made it past censors shows the
emperor as comfortable with his subjects, his military uniform swapped for
civilian suits as he inspects coal mines, pats horses and doffs his hat to
His wartime role was not dramatized until 1967, when Kabuki actor Koshiro
Matsumoto played Hirohito in "Japan's Longest Day," a look at the tense,
internal struggle over whether to surrender. Matsumoto's Hirohito was filmed
only from behind or in a long shot, his lines limited to an emotional speech
in which he tells his Cabinet, "No matter what happens, I can't stand to let
the people suffer anymore." The only close-up is of the emperor's
white-gloved hand, clenching and unclenching to convey emotion.
Then ? nothing, until a Japanese-Canadian crew made a 1995 TV movie called
"Hiroshima" that aired once on Japanese television before disappearing onto
the back shelves of video stores. It featured actor Naohiko Umewaka as a
pained Hirohito, gradually realizing that the cause was lost and the noose
of devastation was tightening.
Umewaka, who comes from Japan's traditional Noh theater, says he was chosen
in part because he brought the dignity and stoicism of that tradition to the
"I watched some of the old documentaries made after the war when he was
traveling around Japan, but I don't know how you can really act Hirohito,"
Umewaka says. "I just wanted to let the sadness show, as we did in that last
meeting with the generals. People are crying. There is emotion there."
And that's it, at least until "The Sun." But it is far from certain that
the Japanese public will ever see Ogata's Hirohito ? the movie has yet to
find a distributor in Japan.
Sokurov's movie may offer a generous historical take on the emperor's
wartime culpability, but in Japan there is always an implicit threat of
attack from right-wing extremists who jealously guard any infringement of
the imperial image. No one has
BEGIN p A5
forgotten the near-fatal shooting in 1990 of Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi
Motoshima after he publicly declared that Hirohito bore some responsibility
for the war.
Sokurov was worried enough about the prospect of disruption to shoot the
movie in Russia and keep Ogata's identity secret until every scene was in
the can. At first, he even considered casting a Russian actor.
"But in the end, I felt a Japanese actor was needed for the proper
execution of the role," the director, who has a record of critical success
in Japan, said in a written response to questions.
Ogata says he should have thought of the risk before he took the role.
"I hadn't thought about the dangers when I accepted it," Ogata says with
another laugh. "But after I finished, then I started getting fearful. I
started getting scared."
The slightly built actor hasn't had any trouble so far, but few Japanese
even know Ogata has tried on the emperor's clothes. He has given no
interviews to Japanese media about what it was like to portray an ethereal
Industry executives and critics contend there is little clamor among
Japanese audiences for a movie about Hirohito.
"The Japanese people don't care one way or another about the imperial
family," says Donald Richie, an American who has lived in Japan since the
1940s and is a leading writer on Japanese cinema. "Who's going to go to see
a picture about him? They know it will be respectful."
The film comes at a time of ambiguity in the Japanese public's relationship
with its imperial family. Hirohito died in 1989 (his reign is commemorated
as the Showa era, loosely translated as "shining peace") and the current
emperor, Akihito, his son and heir, occupies a place much closer to the
periphery of Japanese public life.
With its image sculpted by mother-hen bureaucrats intent on preserving
mystique and tradition, the Japanese imperial family has avoided drifting
into the risky game of celebrity royalty, like the House of Windsor.
Yet even as the imperial family seems decreasingly relevant to the lives of
the people, conservative politicians are trying to reassert its symbolic
claim to guardianship of Japanese identity.
The 60th anniversary of the end of the war is unofficially seen here as an
opportunity to turn the page on history. The government is sending Akihito
to Saipan in June, which will be the first visit by an emperor to any of the
Pacific Islands once occupied by Japanese forces. And, after failing on two
previous attempts, conservative lawmakers finally gathered enough support to
pass a bill this month changing the April 29 holiday known as Green Day to
Showa Day, to honor the original national celebration of Hirohito's
For many Japanese, the restoration marks a rightful polishing of the Showa
years into an era marked as much by peace and prosperity as by the nasty
wars that opened it. But among Japan's neighbors, many of whom were
colonized and brutalized during the imperial era, it appears as a worrying
sign of revived Japanese nationalism.
Into this mix comes Sokurov's attempt to "humanize" Hirohito.
The film, the third in the director's series of biopics, which previously
featured Stalin and Hitler, premiered in February at the Berlin Film
Festival. It portrays Hirohito as a peculiar man. With the Americans in
charge of a smoldering Tokyo, Ogata's Hirohito putters about the Imperial
Palace gardens. He is flattered by comparisons in the American press to
"this movie star" Charlie Chaplin. He is confused when confronted with a
door handle he must turn without assistance for the first time.
Ogata says he did a minimum of research on the character.
"I had vague memories of what he was like based on my parents, my
teachers," Ogata says. The actor says he looked at pictures of Hirohito but
has read little on the debate over the degree of Hirohito's wartime guilt.
"The director told me everything," he says.
And Sokurov's instructions were to capture the spirit of hope in the midst
"Sokurov's message is that people in the movie industry put too much effort
into creating violence and destruction," Ogata says. "He wanted to honor the
most important thing: Life, life, life!"
But to do so, Sokurov had to bend his story around some uncomfortable facts
about Hirohito. Despite a trove of historical evidence to the contrary, his
film portrays Hirohito as another victim of the Japanese militarists, a man
of peace who, when the crunch came, faced them down.
Screenwriting credit in this case should go, in part, to MacArthur. Eager
for a peaceful occupation, the general effectively neutered Hirohito, then
conscripted him into the mission to remake Japan as a democracy and a U.S.
ally against the Soviet Union. That required absolving Hirohito of guilt for
the war, leading to the newsreel footage of a benign monarch that became the
narrative of the Showa era for many Japanese.
It is a view challenged by liberal Japanese and American historians, who
contend that Hirohito could have ended the mayhem and killing much earlier
had he not been so concerned about saving himself.
But Sokurov ducks that controversy, declaring himself more interested in
the struggle inside the man.
"It's a film that portrays the atmosphere of the soul, mood and reaction to
life of an unusual person," the director says. "I deliberately avoided
touching on actual or painful political situations that, without question,
took place. But whatever selfish motives guided Hirohito in 1945, his
actions all the same prevented an even more monstrous ending to the war ?
sparing the lives of about 100,000 American soldiers and a million
It is that ambiguity that should make Hirohito an alluring subject for
filmmakers. A man revered as a god is left alone with a mortal's terrible
choice: fight to the death or surrender to an enemy armed with a weapon of
otherworldly power? Thousands of young men have already gone to their deaths
screaming his name as a battle cry. Thousands more innocents may die if he
And will surrender save his life? Or will his own officers kill him if he
It is a drama of Shakespearean dimensions, studiously ignored by the
postwar generations of Japanese filmmakers.
"No one wants to discuss it now," documentary maker Hara says, reflecting
the current mood of what the Japanese call shikata ga nai (it can't be
helped). "It's not that the political environment is restrictive. It's just
complete indifference, about everything."
Near the end of the film, Ogata's Hirohito is left alone in a room. By now
it is clear that MacArthur will spare him ? in fact, needs him for the
reconstruction project ahead. Aware that he will survive, the emperor swings
his arms and dances a jig.
"Maybe this part is not true, but it is also possible," Ogata says. "It is
my favorite scene. This is the moment Sokurov was trying to explore. He is
trying to look for life.
"People can take away what they want," the actor says. "I don't tell them
what kind of Hirohito he was. In the end, it is up to the audience to
Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.
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