Emperor (US-Japan 2012)

The poster presents General MacArthur as an ‘Emperor’ figure

An unusual film, Emperor is an independent US-Japanese co-production with an ambiguous title. The narrative focuses on the dilemma presented to the Allied Occupation forces in late August 1945 concerning the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Should he be tried as a war criminal (and possibly executed) or be allowed to remain as Head of State with restricted powers? The ambiguity is that the decision ultimately rested with General Douglas MacArthur who as SCAP (Supreme Commander of Allied Powers) was the effective ‘Emperor’ of Japan from the moment of Japanese surrender in August 1945 up to the establishment of the new democratic Japan in 1947. In fact he remained the most powerful figure up until 1951 when he was replaced as SCAP by General Matthew Ridgway before the formal end of the Occupation in 1952. The film shows MacArthur, played by Tommy Lee Jones, as a quasi-imperial figure, very alive to his media presence. I realised, watching the film, that my knowledge of MacArthur’s ideas and actions at this time were limited even though I had studied the Japanese social situation under Occupation. The situation in Japan in 1945 was different to that in Germany because the American had virtually complete control with only a minor role for British and Commonwealth forces. In Germany there were four Allied powers each controlling a different sector of the occupied country.

General Bonner Fellers and his interpreter Takahashi (Haneda Masayoshi)  approach the Imperial palace, still intact in the centre of a devastated Tokyo

The script for Emperor, written by Vera Blasi and David Klass and based on the book His Majesty’s Salvation by Okamoto Shiro, was directed by the British filmmaker Peter Webber. It builds the action around another historical character, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a ‘psychological warfare/intelligence’ officer who is charged by MacArthur with finding the evidence to either indict or exonerate Hirohito. For the purposes of the narrative, MacArthur gives Fellers a strict 10 day deadline. In reality it took rather several months. This is a film which constructs its narrative around real historical events and real historical characters. It also attempts to present its story against an authentic background of a devastated Tokyo. As such it provided a field day for historians, both amateur and professionals. If you check out the reviews on the usual sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, you will probably get the impression that the film was both a box office and critical flop with little to recommend it. But dig a little deeper and quite a few critics and audiences liked the film. I think it is certainly worth exploring and pointing out some of the misunderstandings by prominent critics and some audiences.

The most impressive aspects of the film for me are the sets and location ‘dressings’. All but two days shooting were carried out in New Zealand and you can find the whole story of the shoot on the New Zealand Film Commission website. The key to this aspect of the production is perhaps the producer role of Narahashi Yôko who was an associate producer on The Last Samurai (US-New Zealand-Japan 2003), which also used New Zealand locations extensively. The most problematic aspect of the script for critics appears to be the ‘tacked on’ romance narrative which sees Fellers attempting to discover what has happened to the young woman he met as an exchange student in the US and who he eventually tracked down in Japan before the Pacific War began. As I understand it, the ‘real’ Fellers did once meet a Japanese exchange student in the US but he married an American and although he did visit Japan in the 1930s, the ‘romance’ element of his time in Autumn 1945 is fictitious. Why then add the romance – is it simply a cliché in a Hollywood film? I think not. Its purpose is to engage Fellers in a ‘human story’, which is arguably also the case for another narrative strand that involves Takahashi, the interpreter assigned to Fellers. Fellers speaks some Japanese fairly fluently but the importance of his mission means that an interpreter is essential. The romance narrative also allows flashbacks to Fellers’ earlier visits to Japan, including a meeting with the young woman’s uncle who is a Japanese General.

Fellers and the Japanese teacher Shimada Aya in Japan before the Pacific War

The young woman is Shimada Aya (Hatsune Eriko) and her function is really to ‘humanise’ Fellers in the context of his mission and to facilitate his contacts with various Japanese civil servants and politicians. This is achieved partly through the meeting with General Kajima who is still in his rural villa in 1945. Kajima also serves to explain to the audience (Fellers should know this already) why and how Japanese culture means that the conduct of the war and the attitudes towards Hirohito are so different to how most Americans understand them.

It occurs to me that Emperor has something in common with Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House (UK-India-Sweden-US 2017) in which the historical figure is Lord Mountbatten as the Viceroy who must deliver the Partition of India and which features a romance between two young lovers from different religions in the Punjab, one of the territories subject to most anguish in the Partition. I think there is no easy answer to the question of how to make a commercial, popular, film about such momentous events without in some way fictionalising the narrative. If it helps wider audiences to engage with the general narrative and to understand something about the history, I think it can serve a useful purpose. Such films don’t necessarily ‘distort’ history since the important factual elements are included.

What disappointed me in this film was that it presents two American characters who each deserve more screen time. General Douglas MacArthur is an important and controversial figure in modern American history who took his role in Japan very seriously and believed it would lead him to a potential nomination for  the US Presidency. Both President Harry S. Truman and his Republican successor in 1952 feared MacArthur’s growing power base and he was sacked as SCAP during the Korean War. There are American films about MacArthur that tell his story in more detail. The best known of these is the biopic MacArthur starring Gregory Peck in 1977. Tommy Lee Jones is matched against this portrayal and marked down by several critics and audience members. I haven’t seen the 1977 film so I can’t comment, but MacArthur isn’t the real subject of the Emperor narrative. It is aspects of Fellers’ character that are more relevant.

General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito ( Kataoka Takatarô) pose for a photograph

It is hinted at, but not really developed in the film, that one of the factors influencing both Fellers and MacArthur is fear that any unrest in Japan could provoke a Soviet invasion. In fact Soviet troops did invade the Kiril Islands off the North East tip of Hokkaido, following re-possession of the whole of Sakhalin Island. MacArthur seems to have taken a fairly pragmatic view of how to handle the Japanese Communist Party but Fellers was very much part of the anti-communist right that was growing in power in the US and who saw support for Hirohito as part of the defence against Soviet expansionism. This would later inform American military activity in Korea and then Vietnam. I don’t think this side of Fellers is given sufficient weight in the film. When he returned to the US and retired from the military in 1946 Fellers became active in politics supporting the conservative wing of the Republican Party and later joined the right-wing John Birch Society.

For some background on this period I used John Dower’s magisterial 1999 study Embracing Death: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin Books). This gives the full text of some of Fellers’ reports to MacArthur and it generally concurs with the view that Fellers’ ‘beliefs’ about Hirohito were accepted even though no actual evidence of Hirohito’s behaviour during the prosecution the war could be discovered. On the plus side this meant that for the rest of his life (he died in 1989), Hirohito’s presence helped to keep Japan as a stable ally within the American sphere. On the other hand, it has meant that today Japan still struggles to come to terms with what happened after the military takeover of the country in the early 1930s and the subsequent conduct of the Chinese and then the Pacific War. All of this is beyond the scope of Emperor but the Fellers narrative is certainly an important element in the wider story. The film made only $3.34 million at the US Box Office and most of its cinema audience was in Japan where it made $11 million. Its UK release was on only a handful of screens, making little or no impact.

Emperor is available on various streaming services and I think it is worth watching for its presentation of events in late 1945.

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