An American Warlord Grapples with a Society’s Reluctant Emergence from Imperial Rule

EMPERORJapanese atrocities in the Pacific during World War II have been well documented, and we know how the U.S. retaliated by destroying great portions of Japan with the A-bomb. But what happened to diplomatic relations between the two countries during the American occupation of postwar Japan? What did we do about Emperor Hirohito? And who issued the order to bomb Pearl Harbor? These are some of the vital historical questions asked and answered, soberly and responsibly, in Emperor.

Tommy Lee Jones does his typically sour, deadpan turn as General Douglas MacArthur, adding doses of egomania and short-sightedness often hinted at by the journalists who covered his mission in Tokyo after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. He’s always interesting, but in Emperor he is relegated to the equivalent of a supporting role, consisting mainly of barking orders like “Do not come back to this office unless you are dragging him by the balls!”

The real star of the film is the magnetic, forceful and charismatic Matthew Fox, who steals the entire film as easily as if he were pitching a softball. Mr. Fox, who captured world attention as the star of the TV mystery-adventure series Lost, is heading for blazing stardom as one of the most compelling screen presences since Gary Cooper and William Holden. He plays the demanding role of Bonner Fellers, MacArthur’s protégé. Fellers was the U.S. general whom MacArthur assigned to investigate Japanese military complicity in the war and arrest and bring to justice 30 of the top war criminals close to the emperor, beginning with Prime Minister Tojo. It was a daunting and dangerous job. We won the war, but not the respect of the Japanese people. Occupation forces were warned to be careful not to act like conquerors, even when the U.S. high command drove through the streets of Tokyo and the citizens turned their backs on the convoys. General Fellers faced myriad obstacles, including a bad beating in a Tokyo bar, and learned that Japan was a nation of contrasts, where “nothing is black and white, but a million shades of gray.”

Director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) does a superb job of detailing a vast canvas of Japanese life on several cultural levels—from the tradition of honor and the history of suicide as an act of bravery to the shame of defeat and the rage against American soldiers over streets that smelled of burned and rotting flesh and a countryside reduced to a crematorium full of ashes. When President Franklin Roosevelt takes the deified Emperor Hirohito off the “protected” list, MacArthur faces a powder keg. Given a U.S. deadline of 10 days, it is up to Fellers to pardon the emperor, arrest him or hang him. Whatever the decision, he first has to meet the emperor face to face—a forbidden act and a spark in itself that could ignite a revolution. As his investigation proceeds, Fellers is also shown (in a subplot invented by screenwriters David Klass and Vera Blasi) searching, with the aid of a sympathetic Japanese interpreter, for an old girlfriend named Aya (lovely Eriko Hatsune, from Norwegian Wood) whom he met in college when she was an exchange student and had an affair with before the war. Were MacArthur’s motives honorable? He knows his favorite military adjutant’s fondness for Japan and his love for a Japanese woman, but he wants to please the White House and the American people, who demanded Hirohito’s head on a stick. He also nurtures an ambition to run for president. The personalities are finely drawn, and many points of view are shown in the finely tuned screenplay. Highlight: Mr. Jones’s big scene at last, when, as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces, he is finally granted permission to enter the Imperial Palace and breaks every rule in the book in one historic meeting with the emperor that changes Japan from a feudal society to a democracy.

The political intrigue works more effectively than the love story. During Fellers’s tedious probe into the actions leading up to the 1941 air attack on Pearl Harbor, the film pokes along too languidly for its own good. The only action scenes (of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) are from grainy period newsreels. But history buffs will relish the facts. No proof was ever found to charge the emperor with the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the film does reveal the single wisest decision in postwar history, which saved a 2,000-year-old dynasty from disgrace and got Japan back on its feet. The emperor never stood trial, but instead became a friend to the U.S., backed a new constitution, denounced his “divinity” as a false concept and continued to play an active role on the stage of world diplomacy until his death in 1989. Despite its flaws and occasional lapses of energy, Emperor gets all the facts right for posterity. Call it old-fashioned filmmaking, but you learn a lot and come away feeling an impact all too rare in movies today.


Running Time 106 minutes

Written by Vera Blasi, David Klass and Shiro Okamoto (book)

Directed by Peter Webber

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox and Kaori Momoi

An American Warlord Grapples with a Society’s Reluctant Emergence from Imperial Rule