Here are some quotes from the DVD sleeve of this highly acclaimed film. (It was nominated for a Golden Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, not to mention other film festival nominations and awards.)
"A masterpiece... Daring, disturbing and gripping... Brilliant" -- The Guardian.
"Alexander Sokurov's study of Emperor Hirohito... A MUST SEE" -- Screen International.
"Completely Mesmerising" -- The Daily Telegraph.
"Remarkable... Brilliantly sums up all the dilemmas that surround war and peace" -- JG Ballard, although personally I can't stand Ballard's work, in which I've never yet detected a human emotion.
Tomoko had been wanting to watch this for ages. We bought it. We experienced it. It nearly sent me to sleep, although it improves in the second half, while Tomoko hated its editing and camerawork more than that of any other professionally released film she'd ever seen. She couldn't even discuss its story, because as a film editor herself she hadn't been able to get past how badly made it was.
It's about Emperor Hirohito after World War Two. Japan's lost. General MacArthur is about to set up war crimes tribunals and rule the country for the Americans through 1945-1951. The question is whether Hirohito himself will be tried as a war criminal, being after all technically the head of state. He's also a god. As the descendant of the sun god, Amaterasu, he's regarded as divine by his subjects and even his war cabinet reacted badly when he tried to point out that his body was as human as anyone else's.
That's an interesting subject for a movie. It's also doubly valuable for being something that a Japanese filmmaker couldn't have made. (Sokurov is Russian and this is a Russian film, albeit not in his language.) Japanese people can't make films about the Emperor. It's not prohibited by law, as far as I know, but that's not the issue. It's just not done. No one had any problem with a Russian filmmaker going there instead, but even so for safety's sake Sokurov suppressed the name of the actor playing the Emperor, bearing in mind two attempts on Nagisa Oshima's life that had been made after he'd criticised Imperial Japan during WW2.
Tomoko doesn't care about any of that and had indeed been eager to watch this film, but she's still aware of cultural taboos.
Anyway, the first half is dull enough to kill you. Hirohito's palace staff look after him and helps him go about his daily business, which is to say that he does nothing. This goes on for fifty minutes. Everyone treats him like a china doll. He's insulated from all influence, power or dissenting opinions. Massive respect, zero actual power. I quite liked the guy, but to watch his daily life is to watch anti-drama, static to the point of fossilisation.
Issei Ogata's performance in the lead role is brave and remarkable, though. He's the best reason to watch this film. He portrays him as this weird, twitching, faintly toad-like chap who keeps moving his mouth as if he's got someone else's false teeth in there. His smile at one point reminded me of a vampire's. However all this is simply because he has almost no experience in interacting with other humans, since officially he isn't one. He's a god. Everyone treats him as a god. He understands a jaw-dropping number of languages, but he sounds like a robot when trying to speak in them. He passes his spare time researching marine biology. Amazing. You've got to admire the guy, but it's also staggering that he wouldn't have anything better to do with his time as the leader of Japan during World War Two.
Some interesting points of view are put forward. Japan's Racial Equality Proposal getting shot down by the international community at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference is completely true, while I hadn't known about America's Immigration Act of 1924, aimed mainly at the Chinese and Japanese. There's also some surrealism (a dream with flying fish) and a scene where Hirohito kisses his wife's picture.
Otherwise there's just nothing to watch. The scenes drift by and your eyes become heavy. It's death by art cinema.
It improves when MacArthur shows up, although Robert Dawson looks scrawnier and less military than photos of the real MacArthur. (Tomoko had been given false expectations by the spooky Hitler lookalike in Downfall, while Ogata here had looked reminiscent of Hirohito in still photos. Not so much on-screen.)
MacArthur's conversations with Hirohito are the heart of this movie. They woke me up! At first, the two aren't even talking to each other. They're constantly at cross-purposes and it's not clear that either of them has even noticed. Hirohito just says what's on his mind and doesn't seem to have got the hang of responding to other people. MacArthur, meanwhile, is talking to the Hirohito in his head, i.e. the war criminal whose country killed millions, rather than the man who's standing in front of him.
There are some nice scenes in the film's second half. I liked everyone being weird about the chocolate and the cripplingly awkward conversation about the Northern Lights. The metaphorical gay kiss of the cigars is an interesting touch. I liked Hirohito and his wife. In other words, I think the film's second half comes alive, at least compared with the corpse-like first half, and I ended up quite liking what I'd watched.
That said, I'd noticed the bit where the camera cuts off the top of Robert Dawson's head. If even I'm noticing things like that, Tomoko's going to be spitting blood. She was. She found the film literally unwatchable, in the sense that she found the editing so distracting that she couldn't concentrate on the actors or the story. After the film ended, she was taking me back to the beginning to point out errors in shot-by-shot continuity. Someone can be holding a fork in one shot and not in their next one, with no intervening sound of cutlery being put down. Characters teleport out of scenes because the director's put together takes that don't fit, or alternatively is trimming for time and violating visual grammar. In one scene, you can see the cameraman's shadow. Tomoko really, really, really hates this film.
In fairness, one does suspect that this was a low-budget picture. The art film aesthetic disguises that, but Robert Dawson (II)'s IMDB profile says that he's known for Class of Nuke 'Em High Part II: Subhumanoid Meltdown.
In short, it's a bit of a rough ride. I ended up appreciating much of it, but I was struggling for the first fifty minutes and that's a long time. Compared with Tomoko, though, I'm dancing around with pom-poms. (Let's face it; most people won't notice any of all that technical stuff. I hardly ever do, anyway, or at least not at Tomoko's level.) I think the film's success at festivals is partly because it's the kind of thing you'd expect to play well at film festivals, although that's not to say that it doesn't have some interesting material. It went down fairly well in Japan, I think, although history wonks have objected to particular scenes. I'm not too fussed about those. Those criticisms looked fairly fine-grained to me, as opposed to "America invented the Enigma machine" or anything silly like that.
Far from worthless. There are things to admire. However you might want to be doing some ironing during the first half.