Movie Review: “Emperor”

ImageHirohito 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.

(The “REAL” Bonner Fellers is examined here.  And Roger Moore’s interview with Tommy Lee Jones is here. )

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.

Running time:1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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7 Responses to Movie Review: “Emperor”

  1. Pingback: General Bonner Fellers, the “hero” of the WWII drama “Emperor”? | Movie Nation

  2. Pingback: Tommy Lee Jones talks “Emperor” and Westerns and his new directing job, “The Homesman” | Movie Nation

  3. Millie says:

    Hi, Roger –
    Sorry I treated your other Emperor post as a review.
    Your post here has a review in it, composed of fair critiques spread over a few paragraphs. Plays to the uncertainty of the times, love story could have been better done, interesting melodrama. I’d add to those that the film could have done more about MacArthur dealing with his own Emperor status.
    However, you continue to wander off. As to the movie, Isn’t it irrelevant whether the romance is fiction or what the “real” Fellers did later, (Or, more accurately, what you think is the “real” Fellers based on some quick googles. Real life is a bit more complicated than that.)
    Emperor is not a great movie for some of the film reasons you mention, but it is a good movie because the core story comes palpable. These two men find themselves at a monumental moment when they have to decide, with facts ambiguous, what is justice for millions of people dead, living, and yet unborn. “I’ve made my decision. Now you make yours.” MacArthur swallows his pride and Fellers swallows his angry grief. Powerful stuff, food for thought, and a good movie.

    • Millie, dear, your compulsion to instruct me on how to write a movie review might carry more weight if you didn’t reiterate the very points I made in the review in your “criticism.” Your earlier confusion of a collection of background notes on one character, meant to illuminate the film or those not knowing who the principals were, should have been chastening. The mere fact that you got to see this about the time that I did doesn’t give you insight, especially as you don’t appear to have bothered with “a few quick googles” of your own.
      Oh, and thanks for the lecture on “real life” and how “complicated” it is. It carries so much more weight, coming from you.

  4. DocWatson says:

    For more information on the period and Hirohito’s involvement, I highly recommend:

    Frank, Richard B. (1999). Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. New York: Random House. ISBN 9780679414247. (Paperback: Penguin, 2001; ISBN 9780141001463.)

    It doesn’t cover the exact territory that the movie does, but it does give the lie to one of the Japanese characters’ statements: contrary to the testimony in the film, Hirohito kept a diary in which he recorded his “innermost thoughts”, a diary which has been published.

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