When the second World War is discussed the conversation usually turns to Germany and Adolf Hitler. The same can be said for movies about WWII; more often than not, and particularly in recent film history, it is the story of the Nazi’s rise to power and the holocaust that feeds screenwriter’s imaginations and research. But what of Japan? For Americans the impact Japan had on WWII is a constant reminder of how our country is not impenetrable to war on our own soil in the modern age; made even more evident on September 11, 2001. Director Peter Webber’s Emperor is a rarity among WWII-themed pictures, as it tells the story of the aftermath of the war; Taking place a mere month after Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces, namely The United States Of America, and what put an end to Japan’s invasion of several Pacific countries. Emperor‘s story has yet to been told on screen, and it is a fine example of storytelling wherein it exemplifies the struggle of an occupation post-war, the rebuilding of a civilization, and, possibly most importantly, the trials of learning to understand a culture strikingly different than your own.
From a screenplay by David Klass (Kiss The Girls, Desperate Measures) and Vera Blasi (Tortilla Soup), Emperor was brought to life because of Producer Yoko Narahashi and her family history during WWII in Japan–her grandfather Teizaburo Sekiya served in the high palace as a member of Emperor Hirohito’s Ministry of the Interior. The historical events of the film are accurate, it is the love story that was born out of pure imagination. After atomic bombs were dropped on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki cities WWII came to a halt for Japan when Emperor Hirohito unconditionally surrendered. The broadcast he sent out to the people of Japan was the first time in history he ever addressed them personally and told them to “endure the unendurable”–that is, he did not use the word surrender. This is an important fact given in the beginning of the film as it will become a continuing theme. Throughout Emperor it is never about the Japanese surrendering to the West, and their beliefs, ideals, and ways of life. Far from that, actually. Emperor‘s story is far more complex as it delves into the acceptance of different cultures and finding a way to exist together in order to rebuild a Country that has been devastated by war. It is here that the fictional love story between General Brigadier Bonner Fellers and Aya becomes incredibly important because Aya stands for Japan, and it is through her that Fellers develops a great love and appreciation for the Japanese culture.
As the Officer assigned to investigate Emperor Hirohito by General Douglas MacArthur, Matthew Fox redeems himself after last year’s Alex Cross. His performance as Bonner Fellers is nearly poignant, a man determined to tell the truth regardless of whether it aligns with the Allies wishes, President Harry S. Truman’s, or General MacArthur–that is, to find the Emperor guilty of war crimes. There is no machismo at work here, or a feeling that Fellers is trying to prove himself and gain praise, with a bump in rank, during the investigation. Much of this is due to the intricately woven second storyline about his romance with Aya; a woman he fell in love with years ago and lost due to the conflicts of their countries. It is only through his understanding of Japanese culture and the closeness he shared with Aya that he is able to think objectively on the matter. The argument that he is too close to Japan, and has sympathy towards the country and Emperor because of his ties to Aya do not go unaddressed. They also throw in a very controversial twist that definitely changes how you view Fellers. The conflict exists, and the screenwriters manage to meld them together to create a story with Emperor that is greatly reliant on understanding differing cultures and ways of being. The Japanese have a way of life that is foreign to an American citizen. As do Americans differ in their way of life to the Japanese; especially since Americans have incredibly different beliefs individually. Herein is where Emperor succeeds immensely. It is not only a movie about investigating a man who is viewed as a God by his people but also about learning to accept and understand the differing views of a people.
In order to resonate the great pain Japan is facing the production design of Emperor emphasizes devastation. Families are living amongst rubble where buildings used to stand. There are no longer streets but roads built out of moving the rubble to two sides. When Fellers seeks to find a member of the Emperor’s employment the street address no longer means anything. The people in the barren fields are dirty; their faces full of sadness over the death of their family and the destruction of their country. But they do not beg, nor do they forget the rules of their culture–as seen when they turn their backs to passing cars filled with high ranking officials, even those that are American. At the same time a hard contrast is seen in Emperor. The cities may be ravaged but some places remain full of the beauty that is Japan. The open-air homes, lush greenery, and breathtaking beauty of the untouched by war landscape only exemplifies the perils of war. The lingering question as one views the devastation, and witnesses Fellers search for answers, is who profits and who loses in war? For the people have surely suffered and for what gain.
One of the greatest attractions of Emperor, even if it is not the strong point of the story, is Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of General MacArthur. History books are full of MacArthur’s career successes, and his desire to be President–he never won the nomination. The most interesting thing about MacArthur is his personality and Tommy Lee Jones has a great time playing up the quirks of the flamboyant General MacArthur. The most memorable being his love of taking pictures, even when it is forbidden. Jones may be a focal point in the story as General MacArthur but this is not his story. He huffs and puffs when he needs to get his wants and desires across and makes sure to emphasize the importance of the investigation against Emperor Hirohito. But Emperor is a much bigger story than General MacArthur, and one must accept the romance, the depictions of a war-torn country, and the longing that hangs heavy throughout the entire film to fully enjoy its greatness. The final scene between General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito is a triumphant end to a wholly engaging story that needed to be told. The blending of fact and fiction, display of loyalty and obedience, and deep feelings on the aftermath of war make Emperor a grand success of an untold historically significant story.