26 September 2005 | frankiehudson
Hirohito the Simple Gardener
The beginning of this film is exceptionally dull, half an hour of Hirohito - in an excellent, intriguing performance by Issey Sogata - pottering around, surrounded by his overbearing courtiers. His servants appear genuinely awed by the God-like emperor and can hardly bow low enough to show their total subservience. Everything - buttoning a jacket, placing a knife and fork in his hands - is undertaken for the emperor.
In a curious similarity to Hitler's last days in the chaotic bunker in the recent film Downfall (2005), Hirohito is confined to his own bunker beneath his imperial palace in Tokyo. Yet, there is little sign of the war down here, just a series of dull, ill-lit yet nicely-furnished rooms, all wooden panelling and seemingly very quiet, in the aftermath of the atomic bombs. The strange thing is the almost entirely Westernised clothes and total banality of the emperor's life. Hirohito wanders around like an Edwardian gentleman, attired in exquisite tailoring, all top hat and fine suits, like Bertie Wooster without the humour.
Hirohito studies Darwin and makes a few minor reflections on his role in Japanese imperialism leading up to the war, and the nature of the beast, yet he is basically Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Selles) in the film Being There (1979), a sort of idiot-savant set free into a world of which he has little or no understanding. You just can't believe that Hirohito had any serious role in the whole affair.
Continuing the Darwinist motif, there are little surrealist sequences, dream-like glimpses into Hirohito's mind, with strange flying fish bombers and so forth. In these sections, the film's like a sort of Salvador Dali/Luis Buenuel/Hirohito war and bombing comb. This reminds me of the brilliant Terence Mallick film, The Thin Red Line (1998), with several US troops under-going similar experiences in an island paradise during the terrible war in the Pacific.
This is why I think the film works. The first meeting of Hirohito and MacArthur - in effect, the new emperor of Japan - is full of tension, a clash of two cultures, both incredibly nervous of each other. The two men start bonding and in one incredible moment of film, MacArthur and Hirohito have a sort of cigar kiss, the former lighting the emperor's cigar while puffing on his own, both engaged, head-to-head. It's like they're exchanging the fumes of victory and defeat. The embers. It is like an antidote to Bill Clinton's normal use of cigars.
They get along just fine, like Laurel and Hardy Go to Tokyo, or something. Or Will Hay, for British readers.
Did Hirohito really speak English? In one moment, Hirohito - in true Chauncey Gardiner fashion - goes into the garden for his first-ever photo-shoot. The photographers are squabbling amongst themselves over terms and conditions while, in the background, this peculiar, be-suited gentleman wanders around tending his roses. He proves to be quite a star, however, influences as he is by the American film stars he so idolises.