The Post-Human Emperor

Alexander Sokurov's The Sun

published in Film Comment Vol.42 N.3, New York 2006

How does a god hear? The Christian ideal imagines god as one capable of hearing everything in detail, from the deeply submerged voices in our head to the cries of those interred in remote closures. Emperor Hirohito – the ‘sun god’ figurehead during Japan’s involvement in WWII – may have garnered similar sonic capabilities. But Alexander Sukurov’s The Sun (2005) presents Hirohito less as a towering terror of sonic surveillance and more as a being afflicted with hyper-sensitivity to his sonic surroundings

It’s easy to miss this aural sensibility in The Sun. The soundtrack ambience has been mixed so low that one strains to hear the seeming complexity in its diffused nothingness. Hums, crackles, splutters, groans and hisses anxiously flitter at inappropriate moments. Their palpable absence of clear detail activates in the audience a sense of doubt as to the audible surface of the film. This displaced act of listening invokes an unsettling sense of how a god might be a supreme contact microphone responding to every unheard sound in the expanse we mortals presume to be silence. When such aural omnipotence is encased within human form, the result is likely to be severely traumatising. No wonder The Sun depicts Hirohito as a shuffling shell-shocked mute despite his remove from the detonations pock-marking Japan.

The Sun is ultimately a tragic portrait of a human – specifically, one whose imposed ‘de-deification’ realigned the Japanese perception of their leader being directly descendent from the sun gods of ancient Japan. Centred on the last few days before Hirohito’s enforced disclosure to the Japanese populace that he had ‘become human’, The Sun audiovisually records his psycho-spiritual transformation from the godly to the mortal. The film’s soundtrack shimmers with an acoustic haze that blends legible sound and interpretative sound. Hirohito’s sonorum is both the artificial confinement of his bunker and the induced psychological distortion of space and hence sound generated by his mental confinement. Statement of self and displacement of self are entwined in this acousmatic portraiture of Hirohito: the rattling sounds and disembodied wireless noise are either in his head or around him in his palatial cell. We audit simultaneously Hirohito’s slippage into human perceptual consciousness, and the shrivelling of his magisterial connection to the human plane.

In Japan where the post-human figures so prominently in post-war depictions of the body, the psyche and the self, Hirohito could be regarded as ‘pre-human’. His frail shell is a pre-formed hull of humanism incapable of decoding the language of sound and space around him. As post-Meiji Japan grew modernist limbs and adapted itself to photographic and phonological environments in the dawning 20th Century, anti-progressive enclaves resisted this invasive modernism with tense opposition. Hirohito became not only a puppet for the military in the lead-up to WWII, but his physical corpus could be interpreted as a body whose interior mechanisms remained untouched by progressive technologies. Sheltered from the infective aura of foreign impositions of reproduction, Hirohito’s embodiment of a pure and unsullied Japan placed him in a realm of the senses inhabited by ancestral deities. The Sun projects Issei Ogata’s Hirohito in a performative light closer to David Bowie’s portrayal of the alien Thomas Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976). Accordingly, the low-level noisescape throughout The Sun functions as a hyper-cryptic language exchanged between superior beings from a pre-linguistic epoch.

The Sun is surprisingly pregnant with Japanese mysticism for a Russian film. Yet its audiovisual atmosphere echoes ways in which the Russia-Japan nexus has been cinematised elsewhere in absorbing ways. The indistinction of The Sun’s sub-mixed field recordings recalls the passages of ‘toned sound’ that shapes many movements in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). The occasional diegetic musicality replays in part the floating Japanese vocal refrain that wafts across barren icescapes in Vitali Kanevski’s An Independent Life (1992). However The Sun articulates something beyond the existential mindscapes those films admirably conjure forth. Its combine of desaturated colours and reduced sounds forges an innovative way in representing a character in relation to his environment. Hirohito – morphing from god to human – shifts from being an energy field that ’creates’ human life (the godly dictate) to a node of energy within that field. His complete neurological networking is thus reconfigured, and it is through the film’s soundscape that one experiences this transition. The Sun reveals Hirohito not as ‘the sun’, but as an artefact of what the sun does, rendering him a pale and bleached figure on the audiovisual stage.

Text © Philip Brophy 2006. Images © Lorber Films