where the writers are

a film review 
by Jeanne Powell

“Emperor”  is a thoughtful political thriller directed by Peter Webber, who  also directed  the highly praised “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (2003).  Vera Blasi and David Klass wrote the screenplay based on the book, HIS MAJESTY’S SALVATION, by Shiro Okamoto.

The film stars Tommy Lee Jones as general Douglas MacArthur,  supreme commander  of the Allied powers in Japan after that nation surrenders in 1945, and Matthew Fox as brigadier general  Bonner Fellers, military intelligence officer and a specialist in Japanese culture. 

Lovely newcomer Eriko Hatsune is cast as Aya Shimada, an exchange student with whom Bonner Fellers falls in love when they are university students in the U.S.  Toshiyuki Nishida is Aya’s uncle, General Kajima, whom Fellers meets when he follows Aya to Japan before the war.  Masayoshi  Haneda is Admiral Ibo Takahashi, who served the emperor in World War II but who retired from active duty in 1944; Fellers interviews him after the war.  And Takataro Kataoka is cast as “the emperor.”

A horrific new weapon is used by the United States at the end of the war – atomic bombs are dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some say so the new American president (Truman) can impress and warn Joseph Stalin of the USSR.  Ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Japan, coupled with  the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic weapons, bring about the surrender of Japan – unconditional except for the protection of the emperor. 

But under pressure from the American political establishment back home, MacArthur now tells Bonner Fellers that he has ten days to investigate the culpability of the emperor in planning Japan’s 1941 attack on the military base at  Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.    War crimes trials are beginning in the Far East, and MacArthur wants to know what political fallout will occur if he puts the emperor on trial along with high ranking Japanese officials – army generals, navy admirals, prime ministers,  foreign ministers, aristocratic relatives of the emperor, etc.   Most well-known of these  is  Hideki Tojo, the prime minister and primary war leader.  The official indictment against Japanese war leaders  includes charges of  “crimes against humanity” and “waging aggressive war.”

This relatively short film (less than two hours) explores some of the complexity of Japanese culture as  it represents to the U.S. in 1945, while raising questions still relevant today about global intervention and about which criminals go on trial after a war.

Bonner Fellers is an up and coming general, a protégé of MacArthur.   He has a deep interest in Japanese culture.  Whether the romance between him and university student Aya Shimada is fact or fiction, the device serves to illustrate stress and uncertainty in the days following the end of World War II, as well as pressure to predict the unpredictable.  There are treasured  moments in a beautifully rendered romance which is made so very difficult by the outbreak of war, versus the daily struggle to retain focus  and gain ground in a highly politicized command where ambitious officers compete for MacArthur’s attention and approval.  

Fox is very good as Fellers, an officer willing to demand what he needs from MacArthur in order to perform an impossible task:  decide if the emperor of Japan should go on trial for his life.   He sets up a command post, decides whom he needs to interview and then struggles night and day to come up with miracles to gain access to high-ranking witnesses who don’t wish to be found and who don’t wish to be interviewed if they are found.  The process is fascinating.
There is a stunning contrast between the MacArthur command post on a hill and rubble-strewn streets in ruins just outside the military base.  At night general Fellers leaves the safety of the command post and is seen in Japanese bars and other nocturnal haunts without a bodyguard.  No other western faces are in the vicinity.  Sleep eludes him as he plots and schemes to work a miracle while others plot and scheme against him.

Ten days to prepare and deliver a report which will decide the fate of an emperor.  No pressure – only the president of the U.S. and the supreme Allied commander of the Pacific are waiting.

MacArthur says he wants concrete proof of the emperor’s complicity in the attack on the military base at Pearl Harbor, not simply conjecture and anecdotes.   What is Fellers able to deliver when he cannot interview the emperor, and his own colleagues have no understanding of the culture?  

MacArthur anticipates his eventual meeting with royalty, with Hirohito who is both an emperor and a god.  “What the hell do you say to a god?”

Matthew Fox starred in “Vantage Point,” an outstanding political thriller about presidential assassination.  He is best known for a popular television series, “Lost.”   

Tommy Lee Jones plays the supreme Allied commander with a mixture of MacArthur-like  traits and dialogue delivered a little too close to the style we know (and love) from  “U.S. Marshalls” with Wesley Snipes.  He was memorable in “Lincoln” with Daniel Day Lewis,  “In the Valley of Elah” with Charlize Theron,  “The Client” with Susan Sarandon,  and “Eyes of Laura Mars” with Faye Dunaway.

This film is entertaining because it explores an area most Americans have not considered, and because it recalls other occasions when American power has brought our country into contact with cultures it did not understand – Native American nations in the 19th and 20th centuries,  as well as Cuban and Filipino cultures in 1898.
We know the outcome of World War II in the Pacific – the emperor renounces his status as a god, and MacArthur helps to create modern Japan.  How it all began is most interesting, and director Peter Webber tells the story well.