In “Emperor,” the post-World War II occupation of Japan drama, Matthew Fox plays the brigadier general given the responsibility of investigating Emperor Hirohito’s involvement in the war, his knowledge of war crimes and his ability, as the divine head of state, to prevent any of that.
General MacArthur, military ruler of occupied Japan and played by Tommy Lee Jones, tasks him with this, all the while letting him know that he thinks he “needs” the emperor to carry out an aggressive makeover of Japan and get it on its feet quickly. Thus tying Fellers’ hands. And Washington, MacArthur huffs, wants to the emperor to hang. The man’s on the horns of a dilemma.
Complicating matters for Fellers, his long-lost college love, a Japanese woman whom he is obsessed with tracking down even as he’s up against a 10 day deadline for coming to a decision on Hirohito.
Did Fellers, a real person, just like MacArthur, have a Japanese girlfriend? The film says they met at “Douglaston College,” which does not appear to have ever existed. So apparently not. A Hollywood invention, like the “ten day deadline.” But he did go to Japan, more than once, before the war. He wrote about the Japanese military, as the movie says. And he met an exchange student in college, according to his family.
Since the script is based on a Shiro Okamoto book that doesn’t appear to exist in English, I ran into a blind alley in trying to figure this out for my review of “Emperor.” I have seen the film twice, and had to murky up the way I talked about the “love story” because, well, I don’t know definitely that it is made up.
But the real Fellers was complicated in ways significantly different from those depicted in the film.
He was in military intelligence, and just before America entered the war, he made a few fairly large boo-boos in the Middle East. He got labeled “Anglophobe,” and his blundering was costly to the British, fighting the Germans and Italians on their own in the Med and North Africa at the time.
He was in OSS, the precursor to the CIA, for a period. Then he went to the Pacific and became MacArthur’s right hand man. Eisenhower reportedly mistrusted and hated the guy, probably because of his connection to the preening MacArthur.
And did his mission to “save” the Emperor pay off? Yes and no. Japan turned less feudal and militaristic and more democratic/capitalistic, overnight. But some argue that these acts gave the Japanese cover for living the lie that they were the “victims” of the war, allowed them to deny atrocities, war crimes, etc., as the acts of a few. The fact that for decades, they kept films such as “The Last Emperor” and pretty much anything about the “Rape of Nanking” out of Japanese cinemas or off NHK TV backs that up. We gave them room for denial.
The denying goes on and on.
And Fellers’ own post-military activities, heavy involvement in far right groups, “For America” and the John Birch Society, suggests that the guy presented in the movie as being aware of the Communist threat in Asia that Japan was to be the bulwark against was a lot more of a Better Dead than Red zealot than that. Different times, different fears, that in itself is no condemnation of the man.
“Emperor” does a great job of presenting Japan’s rationalizations/justifications for its actions, at least the ones they gave and continue to give themselves. They were attacking and seizing British, French, American and Dutch colonies (tell that to the Koreans), and were only doing in China what the west had done 100 years before. In their minds, anyway. It’s almost a piece of Japanese apologia.
And the film is a lot murkier on other issues, what the Emperor knew and when he knew it, and whether or not this effort to bend “justice” to fit expediency was justified.