‘I fear the Japan I fell in love with has changed beyond all recognition.’
Emperor examines the issues following the American occupation of Japan at the end of World War 2, how the occupying U.S. forces approached Emperor Hirohito and how they dealt with the political and cultural ramifications of a nation’s defeat. As a US and Japanese co-production, Emperor takes a look at matters of this true story (which obviously uses some cinematic licence) from the perspectives of both the occupiers and the Japanese and shows the successes and the failures from both sides. This duality of approach regarding the conflict between the US and Japan can perhaps be compared with Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), which is about Pearl Harbour filmed by US and Japanese directors, or Clint Eastwood’s double bill, Flags of our Fathers/Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), which depicted the same battle from each side’s perspective. Based upon the book His Majesty’s Salvation by Shiro Okamoto, Emperor is centred ostensibly on the life and recollections of one of the US investigators, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox).
The film opens with the shocking end to the conflict with the most aggressive violence in memorable history, the obliteration of Hiroshima and the subsequent devastation of Nagasaki through the use of nuclear weapons, which led to Japan’s surrender and the subsequent US occupation. This presented a number of issues for both sides: Japan had to endure a loss of pride, strength and national identity, while the US, as victors, wanted to know who was responsible for the war and who demanded and instigated military actions against the allied forces. Key to understanding both sides of this complex situation is Japan’s emperor, regarded by his people a god on earth. He clearly did not act alone however; there were a number of politicians within the elected government who were all heavily involved in the war. To many, the dominance of the Emperor is intrinsic to the understanding a nation that fought so hard but was virtually obliterated by the years of relentless bombings during World War 2.
In Emperor, the US government needs to understand Japan’s involvement in the war and punish anyone responsible for atrocities perpetrated. Despite his divine status, the emperor is distanced from state politics but is still the head of state. He has cultural supremacy but lack of immediacy, and it is acknowledged that ‘the Chrysanthemum Throne is a mystery even to itself’. Did the emperor actually agree to the bombing of Pearl Harbour? General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) is determined to ‘investigate the emperor for war crimes’ and this is the instruction he issues to General Fellers, who tries to understand the multitudinous perspectives of a conundrum which embraces the country and, ultimately, the fate of the head of a nation. Other members of the Japanese elite face similar investigations, indeed orders relating to the prime minister are to ‘keep him alive long enough to face execution’. General Fellers has an understanding of Japanese culture and knows that receiving an interview with the emperor is nigh-on impossible. With only a few days to complete his investigation, he also wants to know the fate of his former girlfriend, a Japanese lady he met at university.
The strength of Emperor lies with the way that approaches its story, to give as balanced a perspective as possible. ‘It’s not a black and white issue, General,’ is the film’s most pertinent line, summarising its approach to the subject, because it tries hard to address aspects from both sides of the conflict. The most difficult question – ‘why?’ – is what drives the narrative. Nationalist US pejorative from many of the occupying troops contrasts with Japanophile Fellers’ reactions to the situation. His role is central because he understands that trying to negotiate directly with Emperor Hirohito (Takatarô Kataoka, a former kabuki actor, in a perfect role for this film) is impossible. ‘The palace is definitely off-limits to our forces,’ he informs General Macarthur who, although outwardly bombastic, turns out to be surprisingly sensitive.
At its heart Emperor is a thoroughly engaging film – on one level it’s about a romance destroyed by circumstances, but the dominant theme is that of the wider backdrop, the historical events which had a massive impact not only on the emperor himself, but also the Japanese population. With strong performances and a balanced approach to understanding politics and culture, it is highly recommended viewing.