In the wake of Germany’s surrender at the end of World War II, Berlin was a mess. As dozens of films like The Third Man have mentioned, the rubble was divided into four zones, occupied by the United States, Britain, France, and the USSR, all squabbling amongst each other. In Tokyo, the United States was the only occupying force, but the Japanese people and culture — despite being the most superficially westernized of major Asian nations — were far more alien to the Americans than the Germans were. It would be an enormous effort to rebuild the state and prevent it from collapsing entirely, ripe for — gasp — communist influence.
Emperor — adapted from Okamoto Shiro’s novel His Majesty’s Salvation — attempts to tell a story about how this reconstruction got underway. But the screenplay by Vera Blasi and David Klass tells this story from a shallow and decidedly American viewpoint.
Days after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito ordered his people to surrender. After that, General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) — Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in the Pacific — moved in and set to the business of standing a broken nation back on its feet. After rounding up a couple dozen high-ranking Japanese ministers to stand trial for war crimes, the political situation in America forced him to consider the problem of the Emperor.
The American people wanted Hirohito’s head on a stick, as you might expect. The catch was that the Japanese revered their emperor as a god, a direct descendant of the great sun kami Amaterasu. If he were deposed, or even executed, it could push the tattered remains of Japanese society over the brink into total collapse and revolt, which could lead to the expansion of Soviet power, and MacArthur certainly didn’t want that.
The Supreme Commander placed Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) in charge of the investigation into the Emperor’s role in any war crimes, counting on his common antipathy towards communism to reach the desired conclusion without letting MacArthur himself appear soft and scuttling his future political ambitions.
But the movie departs from reality. Here we see a procedural mystery that slowly and steadily unfolds, with Fellers following the trail from former Prime Minister Tōjō Hideki, to his predecessor Konoe Fumimaro, and eventually to the Emperor’s close advisor, Kido Kōichi, with only the different actors to differentiate the steps. In fact, Fellers actively enabled the collaboration of the Emperor’s advisors to come up with a satisfactory story allowing for his exoneration. And Fellers was not “demoted”, as the film asserts, as a fall guy for the plan; he simply returned to his permanent rank as a member of the Regular Army when the Army of the United States was suspended in 1946.
And then there’s the love story, as Fellers tries to locate Aya (Hatsune Eriko), a Japanese woman he’d had a relationship with before the war, and whose uncle (Nishida Toshiyuki) just happens to be a general from whom Fellers learned much about the psychology of the Japanese military. A cursory investigation shows no evidence that this relationship actually happened, and I find it less than plausible that someone with such a personal love for a foreign culture would later join up with the John Birch Society.
Factual issues aside, the movie falls far short in its presentation of the Japanese culture it puts forward as so essential to the reconstruction effort. Aya is the typical Asian Schoolgirl character, alternately giggling and overwrought. The other Japanese characters are nearly interchangeable, down to their identical gasps of surprise when they realize that Fellers can speak and understand some of their language.
Aya’s uncle impresses on Fellers the twin concepts of tatemae and honne, and it would have been nice if the movie had done anything with them beyond exoticizing the excuse that people lie when their culture expects them to. If the relationship with Aya was in Okamoto’s novel, then maybe it was intended as a reference to this classic conflict in Japanese drama: Fellers’ private desires for her set against his giri — his obligations — to the Army of the United States. If that’s the case, the resonance is lost in the hands of filmmakers who don’t seem to have recognized the point.
Fox is capable here, and Jones is a perfect match for the Supreme Commander; I would love to see him replace Gregory Peck in a remake of MacArthur. But they’re caught in a production that puts a shallow story ahead of a deep history, seemingly because they think we’ll find it easier to swallow.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.