By Joan Ellis
Is there a time or a place more compelling than Japan in 1945?
The Japanese had surrendered four years after bombing Pearl Harbor. Hiroshima and Nagasaki lay not just in ruins but obliterated by a weapon the world had never heard of a few weeks earlier. Gen. Douglas MacArthur arrived as Supreme Commander of the occupying forces, his assignment: To rebuild Japan, and to determine whether Emperor Hirohito ordered or even knew of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The answer would determine whether he would be hanged as a war criminal or allowed to stay on the throne.
Any retelling – in books or movies – pales next to the reality. Emperor isn’t a great movie, but it’s a deeply interesting one. As told here, the story belongs to Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), MacArthur’s closest advisor, who is given the job of building the case for or against the emperor so MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) can make the final call on guilt.
In the weakest part of the movie, we learn that Fellers acquired his knowledge of Japanese culture and language through a prewar romance with Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese exchange student in America. Even if this explanation is close to the truth, the romance, as delivered to us in flashbacks, lacks credibility. What the flashbacks do give us is the dreadful contrast between Bonner’s carefree initial visit to Japan and the devastation he sees on his official return as occupier. We watch the young lovers running through the majestic beauty of a prewar bamboo forest that has disappeared into the cinders of the devastation that consumed Japan toward the end of the war.
The great strength of the movie lies in its portrayal of the cultural divide that envelops both the Americans and the Japanese. Unfamiliarity brings unintended insult. Both Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox are convincing as they explore the minefield that lies between becoming liberators or conquerors,
between pardon and conviction, between revenge and rebuilding. MacArthur sees the dilemma when he says “Nothing in Japan is ever black and white; there are a million shades of gray.”
Aya’s uncle, General Kido (Masato Ibu), warns Fellers, “You will never understand the ancient warrior code of loyalty and obedience.” Nurtured for 2,000 years, it is incomprehensible to the Americans. When General Kido finally reveals the facts that led to Japan’s surrender, Fellers faces the quandary
of an explanation without proof. The decision of the emperor’s guilt or innocence becomes a matter of trust, all of it unfolding in the cultural contradictions that surround the surrender. The final scenes of the movie explain the research and conclusions that Feller presents to MacArthur who then makes a decision of compelling import.
In a final meeting between Gen. MacArthur and the emperor, Takataro Kataoka’s Hirohito is strong, quiet, and convincing in the movie’s best scenes as he navigates the cultural divide in traditional silence. Yes, Emperor is a history lesson, a powerful and absorbing one.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.