Movie Review: Emperor (2012)

Emperorby Brad Nelson   5/26/14
Tommy Lee Jones is completely unsuitable as General Douglas MacArthur. Matthew Fox is a stiff as an actor. Plywood might have emoted better. Add to that some pro-Japanese revisionism and you have the makings of an atrocious movie. So why did I like it?

The fine line this movie walks is trying to downplay American gung-ho-ism without lapsing into historical revisionism. Honestly, I don’t know the fine-toothed details of this era, so I take it as more of a fictionalized drama than a biography, perhaps propelling me to do some further reading on the subject.

There certainly reigned somewhat of a “let bygones be bygones” ethos after the war. We did not punish Japan. We (partly with an eye to having a base to help head off Soviet Communist expansion) helped to rebuild her. But you’d never get the sense from this movie that we also helped to rebuild her because we were not conquerors but liberators. The bias is subtle.

The attitude of getting to know our enemy and putting the past behind was certainly a real historical element. And I think the film shows this aspect fairly well. That it slips in a little too much pro-Japanese bias is perhaps a matter of taste. Some of this is irrelevant because this movie is a broad sketch of the time, at best, acting as a mere backdrop for what is inevitably a love story.

Matthew Fox plays General Bonner Fellers who is tasked by MacArthur to determine the guilt or innocence of Emperor Hirohito during the very first days of the Allied occupation of Japan. And he has only ten days to do so. As you might suppose, the Japanese city of Tokyo is in a shambles. Records (and the appropriate officials) are difficult to find.

The movie casts this as somewhat a conundrum for MacArthur, who has presidential ambitions. The folks back home (including the president) want Hirohito tried as a war criminal. With this popular (and probably justified) sentiment raging, MacArthur is apparently looking for someone else to find a reason to let Hirohito off the hook. He knows that if they hang Hirohito, there might well be a huge uprising of the Japanese people which would make his job of rebuilding Japan near impossible. So he picks this Japanophile in the guise of General Plywood (I mean “Fellers”) who had spent some pre-war time in Japanese getting to know its people and customs — and falling in love with a beautiful Japanese girl in the process.

It must be said, part of gauging MacArthur’s motivation is an act of reading between the lines. You barely get inside his head. This is by no means a remake of the generally excellent portrait of him in 1977’s MacArthur starring Gregory Peck. This movie isn’t about him. It’s about Fellers and the girl he lost once to the mad militaristic fever that swept over Japan and that forced him to leave the country. And while he searches for evidence to either convict or acquit Hirohito, he also searches for his lost love in a city that has lost over a hundred thousand citizens to Allied bombing. The prospects don’t look promising.

You relive and review this relationship in a series of flashbacks. And although Matthew Fox is no great actor in this movie, he does bring a certain believable American good-guy plainness to the role of star-crossed lover. And although he is no Ben Affleck (thank the movie gods — the trauma of Pearl Harbor still haunts me), neither is he, say, Jimmy Stewart.

As we know (perhaps unless you’ve attended a public school in the last forty years), Hirohito was not tried for war crimes. He eventually renounced his status as a god and lived on until 1989. He was painted (rightly or wrongly….to some extent, as the movie says, much is apparently unknowable) as the man instrumental in the peaceful surrender of Japan, even if he may well have been along for the ride in the heady days of military expansion.

Having some background knowledge on this affair helped to fill in blanks in the movie. For instance, MacArthur famously had his picture taken with the Emperor which does much to raise his own stature. The tall, commanding MacArthur next to the somewhat feeble, diminutive Emperor is a powerful indication of just who is in charge. The movie has very little internal commentary about these things although you do get at least a visual sense of it.

Still, despite some of the flaws, I do think this works as a love story set in the ruins of Tokyo during a very interesting time. It is true that the Japanese are quite humanized in this film, and that is not a bad thing. You get to meet, for instance, Fellers’ would-be father-in-law both before and after the ravages of the war. He helped Fellers escape the country pre-war and also later was an officer in the army, doing all the incredibly cruel and viscous things typical of that army. And this father-in-law has a very good scene where he explains the internal workings of the Japanese people to Fellers.

So you have this combination of a film that is smart in the fined-grained details and a little lacking in the overall (especially with Tommy Lee Jones as an ineffective choice for MacArthur). But it all seems to work. You are compelled to want to know how this all ends. And whatever other flaws this film has, it does tell a good story. • (1407 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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3 Responses to Movie Review: Emperor (2012)

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Well, I haven’t seen either this or MacArthur, though I read at the time that the latter movie (and working on it) caused Peck (a typical Hollywood liberal) to become much more favorable to MacArthur (who can best be described as a flawed genius).

    There certainly was a case to be made against Hirohito (cf. Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy by David Bergamini), but he was definitely the one who finally forced through the surrender on August 14 despite military opposition, including a coup that attempted to prevent surrender. (Robert Conroy’s alternate history 1945 is based on the possibility of the coup actually succeeding, which thus causes the war to continue.) The problem of evidence is that the Emperor generally didn’t play a formal role in government, but had a considerable amount of quiet influence.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      That sounds like an interesting book, Timothy. I couldn’t find a Kindle version of it, but one review of that book by Bergamini mentioned this book (which does have a Kindle edition): Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix. Here’s what one Amazon reviewer wrote about it:

      In 1971 David Bergamini, a Rhodes Scholar, who was raised in the Orient and who speaks and reads Japanese, authored, “Japan’s Imerial Conspiracy.” Bergamini set forth a compelling argument in the role of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito in the planning and guidance of Japan’s aggression before and during World War II. Japanese historians and western academia of the time savaged Bergamini; they closed their minds and buried the truth.

      Professor Bix has researched and documented the truth of Bergamini’s earlier thesis. He does not merely rewrite Bergamini’s work but he puts flesh and meat on the bare bones of truth so denounced in 1971. Professor Bix presents the story of Hirohito. A story of deception extending from the Meiji Restoration to the creation of the plausible deniability doctrine of Emperor Hirohito. The Bix work sheds light as to why Japan has refused an apology to China and other of her victims of World War II; to apologize would be a grievious mortal affront to nation’s sacred beliefs in the Enperor.”

      I downloaded the free sample of it and I’ll give at least the sample a go.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I would recommend Edward Behr’s “Hirohito:The Man Behind the Myth”.

        I think there is no doubt Hirohito was culpable for much of what the Japanese Empire did in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Among other things, Behr shows Hirohito signed off on “Unit 731” the infamous biological warfare project which used live Chinese and others to experiment on.

        As to Japan apologizing to China, they have done so numerous times. The Chinese have used this old chestnut to beat post-war Japan whenever the Chinese feel the need.

        The problem is more that Japanese students have not been taught much regarding the militarism of the 1930’s and 1940’s so anyone born after 1945 doesn’t have much idea of what really happened, other than Japan lost.

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