(Alexander Sokurov, Russian/Italy/France/Japan, 2005)
It's the eve of Japan's surrender to the Allied forces, and the emperor Hirohito passes his days in a lonely windowless bunker, preoccupied with regret, worry, and doubt. He's beginning to get the feeling that he's not descended from the Sun goddess after all, and is just a mortal like everyone else. His servants and generals insist on his celestial lineage, but the Emperor is worn-out and disappointed, and he knows it won't be long before the Americans come knocking. He does get a bang out of his chief hobby, that of an amateur marine biologist, but his family has been sent away to avoid the Allied bombing, and his only companions are a doting, elderly hand servant and a sycophantic aide.
The film sticks almost claustrophobically close to the Emperor, who is depicted with great prowess by Issei Ogata, but for all of the time spent lingering on his every move and word, little is revealed. Sukorov, who directed and photographed the film, presents the character as a man who has spent his entire life in a dream - simultaneously monstrous and childlike, capable of ordering the death of thousands with a single word and yet dazzled with joy over the beauty of a hermit crab. The contrast between the spoiled tyrant and the gentle recluse is apparent, but the film produces no greater effect than mild curiosity, which can't carry it for the almost two-hour running time. It has all the ingredients for an epic tragedy, but nothing occurs to produce anything like pity or awe. What remains instead is a dolorous mood piece, abetted by the repetitive, ominous score and the desaturated, flat cinematography.
Except for a couple of abrupt, striking moments (the apocalyptic dream sequence is truly terrifying), there isn't much here to admire. I was struck most by the ramshackle production quality - the choice of camera placement and use of lighting is bizarrely amateurish, and the editing is obtuse and out of sync with the overall tone of the story. Having seen (and been exquisitely bored by) Russian Ark, I know that Sukorov at least knows rudimentary staging and image composition, but none of that is apparent here - for the most part, it looks like it was directed and shot by a sophomore film student. Part of this has to be by design - the pale, milky imagery is obviously intentional, and it suggests the foggy quality of antique photography - but it still just looks cheap and sloppy. I'm tempted to chalk the whole mess up to an artistic misstep, since it's clear that Sokurov is both serious and committed to his subject. But that doesn't change the fact that the film is a mess - it's full of passion but is absent of rigor, precision, or anything really special to say.