Emperor

Director:  Peter Webber
Starring: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune
Review: 3 stars (of five)

Emperor asks a question that is on the minds of maybe 15 people currently living on this planet: How much of World War II can we blame on Japanese Emperor Hirohito? (Partial answer: Pretty much none of the European part.)

Matthew Fox is the tightly wound general who, under Tommy Lee Jones’ egomaniacal hard-ass Douglas MacArthur, has ten days to decide whether to hang Hirohito for war crimes (mostly Pearl Harbor, which probably doesn’t make the top 20 in Japanese war crimes, but it’s the one that affected Americans …)

Hanging in the balance is not merely whether one inbred, cloistered autocrat would swing from a military gallows, but whether hanging him would set off a violent and sustained uprising of the Japanese people that would threaten the peace and the postwar miracle that eventually gave us racially charged, alarmist thrillers by Michael Crichton and the flood of Camrys flooding today’s freeways.

This Fellers was an interesting feller, with a checkered past that’s not touched on in the film. I can’t tell from my in-depth perusal of Wikipedia whether the movie’s portrayal of Fellers’ love for a Japanese woman has any historical bearing. I figure it must, because if the filmmakers had invented it from scratch, they would’ve woven it into the rest of the narrative better.

(A new site called “bonnerfellers.com,” apparently maintained by Fellers’ family, notes that Fellers did meet a Japanese exchange student in college and develop an interest in the country. It does not note whether that friend was female and whether it led to a tragic romantic obsession with finding her amid the rubble of postwar Japan. Like this film, it also doesn’t discuss Fellers’ problems in the Middle East theater with a broken code, or his post-Japan embrace of the racist John Birch society.)

The film interweaves Fellers’ pursuit of his Japanese enamorata (delicately realized by Eriko Hatsune) with his frustrating investigation of Hirohito. The film doesn’t establish enough of a parallel between Fellers’ desire to save Hirohito, and thus Japan, with his pursuit of his lost love, though all actors involved deliver moving performances.

The film portrays a Tokyo in utter ruins. America bombed Tokyo to dust, and then bombed the dust. Without dwelling on them, the film combines these subtly powerful images with its extrapolation of how Japan’s leaders set the course of war. What emerges is a complicated picture that make it hard to judge Japan (though a little reading up on the Imperial Army’s performance in the Philippines, China and Korea would go a long way to blunting your sympathies).

The nature of Japanese society, in particular the devotion of the nation, in that era, to an emperor who was seen as literally divine, is discussed repeatedly—but not fully or effectively explored. We know that postwar Japan lost its god king, but what became of that cultural devotion, that powerful sense of national identity? How did Hirohito and MacArthur change the nature of Japan to produce first Godzilla, then the Prius? Since the conclusion of the investigation is already a known historical fact, as is Japan’s meteoric recovery, it’s this kind of cultural question that has the most potential.

I went into the film as someone with a lot of interest in Japan, but I wondered whether the movie would hold the attention of the average American viewer, but the film was well-received at my screening. It’s a quiet, well-acted period drama that explores (with some apparent glossing and inaccuracy) a critical period in history, and that’s all good. That it doesn’t quite reach greatness is unfortunate, but we’re still left with an interesting and well-acted film.