... These questions are what the movie Emperor tries to tackle in a dramatization of post-war Japan as the Americans land and take their place as occupiers until the details of peace and consequences can be resolved. We follow the characters of General Douglas MacArthur and General Bonner Fellers as they decide what to do about the Emperor, who the Japanese want to keep and who the Americans want to hang.
The first thing worth noting about this movie is the presence of Tommy Lee Jones as MacArthur. This is the reason why I got so excited to watch this. Tommy Lee Jones does wonderfully with roles in which he can play a confident yet crotchety character, the perpetually grumpy yet affectionate uncle, so he seemed the perfect casting for this larger than life figure. General MacArthur is one of the most eccentric and bizarre military commanders that the United States has ever seen throughout its history. This is a man who would chomp a cigar and arrange for photo ops for just about any occasion. Behind his back, some of the military called him a strutting peacock for how often he tried to shape his image like a celebrity. MacArthur was certainly ambitious; this was a man who eyed the presidency and wanted to present himself in a way that would make that goal more likely.
But peacock though he seemed to be, this was a general who, for a long time, everyone loved as a hero. Early in the war, as the Americans were forced to retreat from the Philippines before the Japanese seized it, MacArthur turned to the country he was leaving and declared, “I shall return.” He became a symbol of stalwart resistance to the average American, a reassurance that the Pacific was watched over by a leader who would laugh in the face of defeat. Even when the fight against Hitler was getting all of the attention and most of the funding, MacArthur held strong in the Pacific and kept the Japanese from beating the United States while its back was turned. Later, when Japan surrendered, he was put in charge of the former foe, making for a peace that has received much credit over the years for being possibly the only example of American intervention done right.
Yet MacArthur was a complicated man. It helps to keep in mind that, years later, this is the same man who was fired by President Truman because he desperately wanted to beat back the Chinese in the Korean War by shooting off nukes like candies. Seriously, his strategic recommendation was to nuke a line between Korea and China to show both sides who was boss, a plan that most would compare to the impulse reaction of an angry five year-old. If MacArthur had had his way, the United States would have made the use of nuclear weapons in war a casual thing. We might not be here today if that had happened. Thankfully, Truman stepped up to the plate and made MacArthur resign. Though a genius at times, his actions in this war helped to prove that MacArthur was an erratic and complex character who alternated reason with pride and melodrama.
And, of course, this is a role that Tommy Lee Jones nails. Jones’ MacArthur speaks haltingly and dramatically as he steps into every scene, showing the shadow of a smile when he is told that the Japanese people are treating him as equal to the Emperor. When told the Japanese customs of greeting, he completely ignores them and impresses the people who were his foe mere weeks ago with sheer audacity. He leads his men with a charisma that is a mixture of loving dad and inscrutable commander. It’s a memorable role.
The only problem is that he is barely in the movie.
For our main character is not MacArthur. Instead we follow in the footsteps of General Bonner Fellers (played by Matthew Fox), the man instructed by MacArthur to answer “the Emperor question.” Many in the United States want to have the Emperor hanged for being the leader of Japan in its ruinous war. But the Japanese view the Emperor as a living god. What will happen if the Americans decided to kill him? Will the Japanese revolt? Will doing this make the occupation a living hell? Or perhaps the question that is truly being missed is: is the Emperor really guilty of beginning the war, leading it, and causing all of those atrocities? Fellers has to address these immense questions and decide what to do about them.
It is not immediately clear why MacArthur wants to put this major issue in the hands of a subordinate but, nonetheless, Fellers takes to the role with the utmost seriousness. If it weren’t for Matthew Fox’s characteristic intensity, it is easy to see that the movie would have been lost without him. We saw in Lost that Matthew Fox can nail a haunted and fierce character, as we witnessed his character there, Jack, start out as a focused leader and then devolve into a shattered wreck before picking up the pieces and becoming something better. Here in Emperor, we watch as Fellers does everything within his power interview the many figures who once served in the Japanese empire, searching for any scrap of information that will either confirm that the Emperor deserves death or that he was the innocent puppet of more militaristic politicians. It is an incredibly stressful job, as we know that such a change will alter the face of Japan for years to come. Matthew Fox shows us a man dedicated to his job but ultimately overwhelmed with the significance of the decision he must make. So at, like any normal human being might when put under stress like this, he turns to drink, is confrontational with Americans and Japanese alike, and struggles with this immense burden in a way that is sometimes difficult to watch.
Emperor is a pretty solid movie which could have been great. However, there is one great flaw, and that is everything to do with Fellers’ lost love. Prior to the war, Fellers lives in Japan, romancing a Japanese woman who he becomes separated from just as the war begins, and as he is forced to leave Japan. Throughout the movie, we are subjected to flashbacks and scenes where Fellers tries to learn what happened to her. This shift in focus isn’t a complete betrayal of what the movie is trying to do. In fact it adds nuance to Fellers’ character and explains why he would be entrusted with the fate of the Emperor. Of all of his comrades, he has the greatest understanding of Japan because of his experience there before the war, wooing this girl and learning about her culture.
The problem is that this aspect of his character is ruined by other things. The chemistry between the actors is terrible and we are given literally nothing in terms of characterization. Why do they love each other? I guess because they are attracted to each other? The movie never explains what they have in common, what makes her special, or even something as simple as what her personality is. She comes off as the perennial damsel in distress, following the wishes of her family (who support the Japanese empire and disapprove of her American boyfriend), and never expressing much of an opinion. Her father has more of a unique and memorable personality than she does and, quite probably, more time onscreen. Consequently, it becomes hard to care about her and thus irritating whenever Fellers inevitably has to return to his find-the-lost-lover quest. This sort of romantic plot tumor prevents the movie from becoming truly great.
In conclusion, Emperor is a decent movie that helps show the intensity of how difficult a decision it was to decide what to do with the Japanese emperor after World War II’s end. Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox give it their all, though I wish the former had received more screentime. Altogether though, the movie is encumbered with a romantic sideplot that becomes overbearing. What’s more there are some historical issues that made it difficult for me, a history teacher, to enjoy it 100%. If you are curious precisely what those were, feel free to ask me in the comments below! Other than those points however, Emperor is a solid and interesting look at a time period in history that almost never gets attention in film: post-war Japan and the peace that came out of it. Check it out if that interests you!