Peter Webber's EMPEROR
Movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
EMPEROR is a very interesting blend of historic fact and fiction. The story starts as Gen. MacArthur lands in Japan following World War II, charged with rebuilding that devastated country. One of his first jobs: arrest top Japanese officials and decide on war crimes trials. This must be done quickly to prevent their escape through suicide. Even more challenging is the need to decide on the fate of the Emperor. Should he be tried for leading his country and the war, a trial that by all accounts will generate great civil unrest given the emperor’s still revered status? Or should be treated with leniency given that his symbolic role in government can be viewed as mitigating his culpability?
Tommy Lee Jones as General MacArthur
Gen. Fellers, a student of Japanese military culture who lived in Japan before the war and had romanced a Japanese teacher whom he met in college, is assigned responsibility for the investigation—and he has to accomplish this in 10 days so MacArthur can keep the aggressive schedule assigned by Pres. Truman. Fellers’ past personal history through the movie is intertwined with his accelerated investigation as he uncovers, bit by bit, how things really worked at the top of the Japanese hierarchy during the war.
The movie attempts to illustrate the cultural differences between the US and Japan and how these differences influenced the course of the war. It’s not as successful when dealing with global issues associated with the conflict (for example, the prewar US oil embargo is given only a cursory mention). It’s more successful, even engrossing at times, when it attempts to illuminate the cultural differences between the US and Japanese military and how they each approach the concept of “duty” and “honor.” It’s unusual to see such issues addressed so extensively in such a well-produced movie.
The production values of the movie are excellent including the use of special-effects to illustrate the still smoldering ruin that was once Tokyo. There’s also one hard-hitting action sequence played out as one government official reveals the attempted coup by a military faction at the very end that attempted to prevent the broadcast of the Emperor’s surrender message.
Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. MacArthur looks nothing like the man but gets across the ego driven character that so many historians have reported. In the end, though, MacArthur decides not to prosecute the Emperor and history has demonstrated the wisdom of his decision.
In summary: you could do a lot worse than this movie for a dose of World War II history. Its attempts to overcome stereotypes and instead illuminate cultural differences are refreshing. The accuracy of the physical production — sets, design, clothes, automobiles — is impressive. It addresses complex issues with respect and should stimulate the viewer to check out other sources.
Additional reading and viewing:
- Alexander Sokurov’s THE SUN
- JAPAN’s LONGEST DAY
- Max Hastings’ RETRIBUTION: THE BATTLE FOR JAPAN, 1944-45
- Barrett Tillman’s WHIRLWIND: THE AIR WAR AGAINST JAPAN, 1942-1945
- Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar’s CODE-NAME DOWNFALL: THE SECRET PLAN TO INVADE JAPAN AND WHY TRUMAN DROPPED THE BOMB
- Robert F. Dorr’s MISSION TO TOKYO: The American Airmen Who Took the War to the Heart of Japan
- Eric Khoo’s TATSUMI
- Kerri Sakomoto’s ONE HUNDRED MILLION HEARTS
Movie review copyright © 2014 by Dennis D. McDonald