‘Emperor’ Tells An Important WWII Story


The new movie Emperor serves up some history on a vitally important turning point for Japan that is barely known in America. By focusing on the role of Emperor Hirohito during World War II and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s decision to retain him as well as the position of emperor, we get to view the clash of two vastly different cultures, something quite relevant in our current time.

Hirohito was the villain for Americans all during World War II. As the god-emperor of Japan (according to their religious tradition, he was descended from the gods and was worshipped as such), he was blamed for Pearl Harbor and every other bit of cruelty committed by the Japanese armed forces. There were plenty of those; the Japanese tradition of bushido had only contempt for prisoners. The anger in America toward the Japanese was strong enough that one admiral, William Halsey, even declared that after the war, “the only place Japanese would be spoken was in hell.”

The film opens with Gen. MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and his staff landing in Japan right after its surrender in 1945. He assigned Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), one of his key experts on Japan, the task of deciding whether the emperor was a war criminal. This was not a simple task: Gen. Tojo, the prime minister during the war, was later hanged, as were other key officials. But Fellows and MacArthur knew that executing an emperor would probably lead to a revolt. The movie’s main plot line follows the general as he speaks to leading Japanese officials, many of whom wanted nothing to do with him, in trying to decide the extent of the emperor’s culpability.

Running through all the film, however, is a subplot about the general as a young man and his love for a Japanese girl (Eriko Hatsune). It mostly distracts from the main story except when he gets a chance to talk to her uncle, a general, who presents an explanation for Japanese devotion to the emperor. Much of the rest of the subplot unfortunately does nothing more than provide a contrast with the main story and detracts from it.

The real story is the decision of MacArthur that eventually led to sparing the life of Hirohito, although (not mentioned in the movie) he had to renounce his godhood. The story of the American occupation of Japan, perhaps the most successful operation of its sort in the history of the world, needs to be told. MacArthur changed the whole face of Japan in five years, moving it from a feudal system to a democracy — and the democracy is still functional. Many other occupations have gone the other way; the nations in charge have to be forced to leave and rule with terror. This one was different.

Unfortunately, this movie looks only at the very start of the whole process of democratization. But it also serves as a way of examining how different cultures, ones with completely varied frameworks, may clash through misunderstanding. A major flaw in the film is its depiction of almost totally ignorant Americans in charge of dealing with the Japanese. In reality, the people assigned to the issues actually studied for several years to prepare themselves and did understand, at least to some degree, the complexity of the issues involved.

The performances are good. Jones has the flashiest role as the general; he gets to be grumpy and annoyed, something Jones does particularly well, but he is able to also show MacArthur’s extraordinary intelligence. Fox is fine as the central character, one of the few actors actually forced to show real emotions. Toshiyuki Nishida as the old general is excellent as he lays out the basis for Japanese actions, both before the war and then at the end. Watching his small Shinto altar with pictures of all of his family, now dead, was a very moving moment. Masayoshi Haneda was good as Fellers’ translator, although it was essentially a part used to allow “explanation discussions.” Since Fellers spoke Japanese, there was no reason for translation, but this allowed the actor to do the translation without subtitles. But he also showed a degree of sensitivity in his work that was excellent.

This is a very good, though not great, movie. We enjoyed it, but both of us were social studies teachers. Interestingly, the best part was the history: the interviews, the arguments and, finally, the meeting between MacArthur and Hirohito which is the climax of the film. The subplot mostly gets in the way. If you miss it in the theaters, wait until it gets to television.