Movie review: Emperor (2012)

Tommy Lee Jones. Historical fiction. Japan. I was hooked.

I tend to enjoy Tommy Lee Jones in the various films he has been in and the roles he has played over the years. In Emperor, I found him to be a bit over the top. But perhaps he was being true to MacArthur, who by reputation was a bit over the top.

Emperor focuses on MacArthur’s mission to rebuild Japan without letting the fate of the Emperor derail this delicate and difficult task. It seems like a given that the US would help rebuild Japan and set it on the path to the economic powerhouse it became in the ’80s. But Japan’s fate was anything but a given. As the movie points out, Japan could have easily devolved into revolt and chaos. Massive numbers of people had been killed in the war. The living were starving with little to eat. Japan sported a culture of devotion to the Emperor. The execution of the Emperor could have ignited the country and led Japan and the US down completely different paths than the ones these countries took.

MacArthur relies on a Japan expert, Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, to investigate the role of the Emperor in starting the war. Fellers is to provide his recommendation: pardon or depose and arrest the Emperor.

Although Fellers played a major role during the occupation of Japan, how much the movie faithfully reflects that is unclear. The storyline of investigating the Emperor is accompanied by a second storyline: a love interest of Fellers. In flashbacks throughout the movie, we see him remember interactions with Aya, a Japanese exchange student at the college he attended. The relationship is doomed during the war years. Back in Japan following the war, he searches for her.

The depiction of Japan in the throes of destruction from intense bombing was harsh. The amount of death and destruction was recounted several times, but such destruction is hard to fathom. The US hasn’t faced anything remotely similar since the Civil War.

In the movie, the two sides—either Japan vs. the US or those who want to investigate the role of the Emperor vs. those who want to hang him—square off with the normal moral arguments. You attacked Pearl Harbor. You incinerated two cities. Japan was just following the lead of colonists before it, seizing territory from the British, the Portuguese, the French, the Americans, the Dutch. How could it be right for one country to seize territory but not another country to do so? The Emperor could have stopped the war. The Emperor was a figurehead without real power. Revenge calls for execution of the Emperor. Revenge is not the same as justice.

Emperor is an entertaining film. Sobering both for the death and destruction that befell Japan and for the romantic storyline between Fellers and Aya. It was a delight to see the wind blowing through a bamboo forest. I could imagine being there, lying under the bamboo listening to and watching them rustle overhead. And I am a sucker for Japanese architecture…what little remained in post-war Japan following the intense bombing.

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