Movie Review - Emperor

Matthew Fox (left) and Eriko Hatsune
share a forbidden love in "Emperor"
Matthew Fox stars as General Bonner Fellers, the real-life right-hand-man or attaché to General Douglas MacArthur following the end of World War II. From 1945 to 1948, MacArthur was made Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers where he was responsible for rebuilding Japan and instituting democracy in that country. He was basically Japan's interim leader where one of his first jobs was to arrest Japan's leaders and get them ready for prosecution. One of his other jobs was to draft a constitution that stripped the Emperor of Japan of his military power, while still keeping the Emperor in his current position but remaining only as a figurehead. Other leaders in Japan as with the leaders in Nazi Germany were tried for war crimes. The Emperor was spared from going to trial and this movie attempts to explain why, and Fellers is established as the investigator who is going to go on the journey to answer that question.

Director Peter Weber opens the film with Fellers arriving in Japan by plane. To any fans of the TV series Lost, the image of Matthew Fox on a plane flying to a Pacific island is a nostalgic one. Weber also cuts in scenes of Fox running through a bamboo forest. Again, to fans of Lost, Fox in a bamboo forest was the opening scene of the first episode and the last scene in the final episode of that series. However, Weber is merely trying to establish that the character of Fellers has been to Japan before and, while there, was in love with a Japanese girl.

Written by Vera Blasi and David Klass, this romantic subplot is more of a distraction than anything else. Based on "His Majesty's Salvation," the book by Shiro Okamoto, it's important for this movie to get to know characters who aren't simply American soldiers or Japanese government officials. Fellers' girlfriend is that character but she doesn't quite connect us or anchor us to the country as one would hope. His romance with her is supposed to be or it's hinted to be a hidden bias on Fellers' part during the investigation, but it comes to be not much of a factor.

Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as General Douglas MacArthur but the filmmakers don't allow him to do much but occasionally light a fire under Fellers' rear. They skip going into the more complex issues and decisions that MacArthur had to grapple. The debate is seriously limited to a single question of what the Emperor's role in the Japanese government was. The filmmakers then frame the argument about what to do with him in a black-and-white fashion that slants the movie in a less nuanced way.

Fellers frames the argument as the American public wants the Emperor to hang but repeats that revenge is not the same as justice, so Fellers basically puts it on himself that he has to determine alone if the Emperor is guilty or not. Actually, MacArthur puts that on Fellers, but the movie never underlines why. The movie fails in providing a broader context for other things at play here.

Hirohito is the name of the Emperor. He was referred to posthumously as Emperor Shōwa. Fellers decides to investigate Hirohito by talking to the people around him. He investigates the Emperor to see if he's guilty of war crimes. Yet, throughout the movie, Fellers keeps referencing Pearl Harbor, as if that's the only crime in question. This is stupid. This movie completely overlooks all the atrocities committed by the Japanese that rivaled the Nazis, including the Nanking massacre.

This movie portrays Fellers as this objective investigator who is trying to find or discover the truth about Hirohito. Other accounts portray Fellers as more of a tool. According to Embracing Defeat by John W. Dower in 1999 and Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix in 2001, both of which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Emperor's innocence was already a foregone conclusion. Even if the Emperor were guilty of war crimes, MacArthur wasn't going to allow Hirohito to stand trial or be forcibly removed or even apologize.

Fellers was basically ordered to go through the motions of conducting an objective investigation but the end result was already known. MacArthur believed sparing the Emperor would make ushering in the democratic changes easier for the people of Japan. MacArthur was probably right in that line of thinking, but that's not the conflict at the heart of this film. The heart of this film wants Fellers to be a kind of hero when in reality he was just a tool.

One Star out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for violent content, brief strong language and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.


Popular Posts