The atrocities of war demonstrate the depth of evil to which human beings can fall. Although this has been seen from times of old, the inhumanity of World War II is a modern example. The loss of lives was overwhelming, from the brutality of the Nazi holocaust to the cruelty of Japanese warriors to the atomic bombs of the American military. Understanding how to end such wars and build a lasting peace became the goal of the American occupation forces in Japan. Emperor is a depiction of that effort. Although the accuracy of several aspects of the film are being questioned, the major event is true: The Japanese Divine Emperor was not tried as a war criminal and instead helped American leaders rebuild Japan.
Based on the book of Shiro Okamoto and adapted for the screen by Vera Blasi and David Klass (Walking Tall), Emperor was directed by Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring). Weaving together a love story with a war movie, Webber pushes the historicity in an attempt to give viewers some compassion and identification with the lead role of Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox). As a specialist in the psychological and cultural aspects of war, Fellers was given the task by the Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) of deciding whether or not to try Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) as a war criminal.
Having met a beautiful Japanese exchange student in college, Fellers travels to Japan to find Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune) when she returns due to her father’s illness. Having promised her dying father to not marry a foreigner, Aya is conflicted when Fellers suddenly appears at her school. This momentary but passionate love provides a humanizing aspect to Fellers’ task.
Embedded within the film are some penetrating discussions that Gen. Fellers has with the Japanese leaders. One of these was Aya’s uncle, General Kajima (Toshiyuki Nishida), who provides Fellers with a nuanced understanding of both Japanese culture and military - the primary aspect of which is their unquestioning devotion to the Emperor whom they consider a god. In other discussions, Fellers explores the comparison between the atrocities of the Japanese warriors who were having a “fever” and the incendiary impact of killing 100,000 Japanese through the use of atomic bombs. The film clearly does not make a distinction between the defense of an American army that responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the expansive imperialism of the Emperor’s army.
Also present within the film is the repeated explanation that the Japanese culture is two thousand years old and should be respected. However, the militarists who are manipulating that tradition for their own purposes counter this. Although the film presents the Emperor as being only a figurehead and is therefore not responsible for his nation’s military atrocities, even the film does not claim that this is able to be proven historically. But the fact that MacArthur needed the Emperor to help rebuild the nation of Japan was and is very clear. Perhaps it is that pragmatic solution that is the final message of the film: a message that doesn’t answer the questions of justice and accountability but does account for six decades of peace between the United States and Japan. The value of this peace cannot be overestimated.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. If you had been Fellers, would you have recommended that the Emperor should not be held accountable for his military’s behaviors? Why do you answer as you do?
2. There is not a clear indication that Fellers did or did not have a Japanese girlfriend. But if he did not, do you think this was a helpful addition to the story? Did you find Fellers’ appreciation for Japanese culture necessitating such a relationship or not? Why do you answer as you do?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.