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Emperor — the Movie — A Review

Directed by Peter Webber. Screenplay by Vera Blasi and David Klass. Based on the book His Majesty's Salvation by Shiro Okamoto

by Bob Kerstetter

Emperor presents an historical fiction account of the days immediately following the end of the Pacific War. It was during this time, General Douglas MacArthur with help from Brigadier General Bonner Fellers fought to save the Emperor of Japan from being tried as a war criminal. While the essential attitudes presented by MacArthur and Fellers are accurate—and the story is very compelling—Emperor is not a documentary.

Creating Shōwa Emperor Conspiracy Theories

emperor-the-movie-iconSome of the most intriguing conspiracy theories following World War II scorn the life and legacy of the Shōwa Emperor—known in the West as Emperor Hirohito of Japan. With minor variations, many of these postulations claim the Emperor planned the details of Japanese military expansion during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. He terrorized other countries, they argue, and oppressed his own people at home. Other interpretations merely accuse the Emperor of timidity or negligence in not controlling his military. A common corollary among the theorists bemoans Emperor Hirohito escaping prosecution as a Class A war criminal destined for hanging.

Tracing a Plotter's Life

Matthew Fox as Bonner Fellers and Masayoshi Haneda as TakahashiWhile not directly about conspiracy theories, the movie Emperor reveals historical reasons for exempting Hirohito from prosecution. The story loosely traces a slice of life from Brigadier General Bonner Fellers. Playing somewhat casually with personal facts about General Fellers, Emperor accurately portrays the motivations behind keeping the Emperor free from prosecution and almost certain execution. In the eyes of some conspiracy theorists, General Fellers helped a guilty man escape justice.

Battling Toward Annihilation

The Shōwa Emperor reigned from late December 1926 to early January 1989. Although he named his era Shōwa—meaning illustrious peace—Emperor Hirohito initially served the Japanese people from the Chrysanthemum Throne during times of international chaos. Throughout the first 19 years of Shōwa, Japan fought against its Asian and Pacific neighbors. In the process, the Japanese Empire nearly lost itself to annihilation during the Pacific War of World War II.

Protecting a Constitutional Monarch

Tommy Lee Jones as Douglas MacArthurAt the close of the Greater East Asian War—the Japanese title for the Pacific War—the supreme commander of Allied forces in Japan determined to protect the Shōwa Emperor from prosecution for war crimes. Protecting the Emperor stood as the single concession of the Allies in exchange for otherwise absolute surrender. Because of his experience in the Far East and his knowledge of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur believed the Emperor reigned as a constitutional monarch—a figurehead—not as a dictator in the style of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. 

Viewed as divine by the everyday people of Japan, the Emperor enjoyed strong social influence but very little real political or military power. While the Constitution of Japan named the Emperor as the absolute ruler, it also distributed his powers to the ruling cabinet—for the Shōwa Emperor a cabinet controlled by the Japanese military.

Seeking Justice and Democracy on a Short Deadline

Bonner Fellers Meeting General KajimaIn the mind of MacArthur, trying and executing the Shōwa Emperor would abort justice and destroy the possibility of rebuilding Japan as a democracy. Believing the Emperor and the Japanese people to be victims of military extremists, MacArthur sought proof to support his hypothesis.  With the voters and leaders of the United States calling for revenge against Emperor Hirohito—despite the Allied promise of protection—MacArthur worked on a short deadline. He sought help from his military secretary, General Fellers.

Becoming a Silent Audience

As the Emperor movie opens during the USA Film Festival in Dallas, the audience becomes soundless and motionless. Archival clips show Enola Gay lifting her Little Boy cargo. A mushroom cloud announces deaths to thousands. Viewer stillness continues to the credits.

Honoring the Supreme Commander

MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), Fellers (Matthew Fox) and support staff fly on a C-54 cargo craft past Mt. Fuji toward Atsugi Airfield west of Tokyo. Approaching Japan unarmed, MacArthur trusts the Far East to view him as friend—as liberator, not conqueror. Hinting at the future, armed Japanese soldiers line his motorcade route. With their backs toward MacArthur and their eyes averted, they honor him with the same protection they give the Emperor. 

Trusting General Fellers

Aya Shimada played by Eriko HatsuneThe story smoothly shifts to General Fellers when MacArthur asks him to exonerate the Emperor. In history, General Fellers knew Japan well. Four times he visited the country before the beginning of the Pacific War. While in college he befriended a female Japanese exchange student. As a student at the Fort Leavenworth Command and Staff School he wrote a paper on The Psychology of the Japanese Soldier, predicting the Kamikaze devotion of everyday warriors.

The movie shapes the Japanese exchange student relationship as a romance. Some say the love story never existed, but who knows? Separated by war from Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune) and now back in her home country, Bonner Fellers takes on double research to exonerate the Shōwa Emperor and find Aya.

Staying Faithful to Both

Masatoshi Nakamura as former Prime Minister Fumimaro KonoeTrue to the character of real-life Fellers, he puts duty first—extending beyond duty both himself and his Japanese driver Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda) in pursuit of his personal mission. Working more together as the story moves forward they chase after dozens of witnesses for the Emperor and several cold trails on Aya. Encounters include those with former prime minister Fumimaro Konoe (Masatoshi Nakamura) and General Kajima (Toshiyuki Nishida), uncle to Aya and a primary source of information for Fellers 1930s report on Japanese soldier psychology.

Deciding to Purchase a Ticket

In the end, the movie is definitely a seat-gluing romance based on more or less accurate history. It tells a believable story of early post-war Japan from the viewpoint of a relatively unknown American. Nakamura as Konoe convinces you Japan was just following the West in its military expansion. Nishida as General Kajima illustrates loyalty, friendship, superiority and humility in his encounters with Feller and Aya. Haneda as Takahashi plays well the part of an everyday Japanese person who suffered terrible loss during the war. Although others disagree, Jones looks enough like MacArthur to convincingly play the role of a military and political leader driven by grit, ambition and patriotism. Fox as Fellers becomes emotionally compelling as he mixes duty with personal love.

Emperor opens in a general release on 8 March 2013.

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