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February 28, 2013

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.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Clarence in Baltimore permalink
    March 2, 2013 23:32

    I’m wondering about this critique.
    For one:
    How would you put in a “Japanese viewpoint” for the film as a whole?
    I mean you could more deeply explore the Japanese culture and have a more rounded set of Japanese characters, surely.
    But the main question of the story is “What would the Americans do with the Emperor”, and it’s told from the POV of the people who had to make that decision. This means you have to “get inside their heads” and look for their motivations, and these people were almost all Americans, not Japanese.
    I mean, I could easily retell this story from a Japanese Nationalist P.O.V. (I’ve read tons of books on the occupation and not just by Americans) but then it would almost certainly be even less historically accurate, and it wouldn’t really explain why the strange foreigners spared the Emperors life.
    For two: I agree with you that there are tons of historical inaccuracies and of course at least one of the main characters(male or female) has to have a romantic feelings or complications somewhere in the plot, whether such an event really happened or not. You could also argue that the actors and actresses look better than the real people.

    Problem with this part of the critique is that you could make the same complaints about just about every ‘historical’ movie ever produced by Hollywood, or heck, most production companies anywhere. Quite a bit of ‘creative license ‘ has been taken with every historical film I can remember and even the rather few that strive to be as accurate as possible almost always have to bend somewhat , usually by trying to impart thoughts to the historical personages that we have no direct evidence for and/or by creating small dramas to fill the empty spaces between the noted historical ‘events’. So it seems to me that this part of your critique is just to have something to complain about, because it was going to happen anyway. Now one can complain if , for instance the film was to get a major part of the actual history mixed up by changing it – say, if , at the end of this ‘historical’ film the Emperor ended up hanging from a post. But this film is basically accurate at the large-scale level, even if they’ve taken quite a few liberties with the actual ‘investigation’.

    Where I probably differ from you on this is that I suspect MacArthur hadn’t made up his mind on the Emperor as soon as the plane landed, and I don’t think his decision was entirely based on fear of communism. However, I do believe he made the decision rather early on (probably within the first 72 hours, certainly by the end of the first workweek(5 days) because he saw two things:
    A. The Japanese, when cooperative could be utilized very effectively for his goals. The Emperor, even more so. He was shocked when he found how little trouble he had running the occupation and it turned out the Emperor was an invaluable tool for making it run so smoothly.
    B. He really did take the threat of a revolt seriously because he saw first hand how so many Japanese were willing to die to assure their Emperors life.

    As for the Bechdel test (and you admitted in another post) I don’t think this movie is one that is hurt by the failure. This isn’t really the story of a woman or even of a man and a woman, so it’s kind of irrelevant. I’m also reasonably sure others are doing the same thing you are but being less discerning in their interpretations.

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