Hirohito sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne and ruled Japan through wars with China and World War II. But at the end of the war, there were two emperors in Tokyo. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, ruled Japan like a potentate, overseeing reforms that turned the country away from fascistic feudalism into a modern economic superpower.
“Emperor” is about both men, about MacArthur deciding whether or not to prosecute Hirohito as a war monger and war criminal. Was the “God King” merely a passive observer to his country’s militarism and crimes against humanity? Or did he sign off on it?
Tommy Lee Jones gives us a saltier version of MacArthur than the image-conscious general ever let on to. His Mac is cagey, guarded, cunning enough to want to cover himself but brave and savvy enough to know that strutting with “a show of absolute fearlessness” is what will impress the Japanese upon his arrival.
With a tiny contingent of troops, he struts onto Japanese soil and watches the armed lines of soldiers turn their back as his motorcade passes.
“They avert their gaze for the Emperor, too,” an aide explains.
“I know,” MacArthur puffs.
We will be “liberators, not conquerors.” But what to do about Hirohito?
He puts an aide, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) on the case. Fellers spent time in Japan before the war. He doesn’t tell anyone, but the great love of his life was Japanese. In between questioning Hirohito’s staff and politicians (the Emperor himself cannot be approached), Fellers puts out feelers to find this woman (Eriko Hatsune, glimpsed in flashback) amidst the ruins of a gutted, starving Japan.
Fellers is given ten days to decide whether or not to arrest the emperor. He must round up other suspects before they can commit suicide.
To its credit, the script (Vera Blasi and David Klass, based on a Shiro Okamoto book) plays up the uncertainty of the times, the pragmatism of MacArthur and the ambiguity of the Emperor’s guilt. But the love story plays like a clumsy distraction. The film soft peddles both the perceived communist threat that both MacArthur and Fellers were working to thwart, and the real Fellers’ anti-communist zealotry, which had him joining the far right fringe group The John Birch Society after his military service ended.
Fox plays the lovelorn soldier blandly, but the whole romance thing appears to be fiction, and historians suggest Fellers’ real mission was to allow Japanese officials to coordinate their lies so that MacArthur would have cover in refusing to prosecute Hirohito.
That suggests a better movie, or at least a more accurate one, was lost in the script stages. But “Emperor” still manages to be a pretty interesting melodrama and a fair, if muddled, accounting of how America helped its hated enemy recover and reform, even if it never quite came to grips with its crimes and role in starting a war.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violent content, brief strong language and smoking (historical)
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox
Credits: Directed by Peter Webber, scripted by Vera Blasi and David Kaas. A Roadside Attractions release.