Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: 2012’s ‘Emperor’: Japan’s Emperor Offered Himself to Be Punished

TIMEDecember 4, 2021

March 8, 2013 (U.S. release)| PG-13 | 1h 45m

Imagine if the president of the United States was considered by the U.S. citizenry to be a living god—an actual god walking the earth. The very concept boggles the mind. But so it was with Emperor Hirohito of Japan; his deification reflected the ancient heritage of emperors considered to be as divine as they were human. This was not only an Eastern tradition. The same was true with Western kings and queens although the legacy weakened over time.


The film: It’s the end of World War II; atomic mushroom clouds hover over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan breaks down. American politicians demand to know whether the Japanese “god” Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka), instigated Pearl Harbor. Someone has to get to the bottom of it. The poetically rendered “Emperor” tells this story.

We meet U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a Japanese expert. His boss, supreme commander of the occupying forces, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones)—he of the general’s hat, aviator shades, and overly elongated corncob pipe—hands Fellers the job.

two men in EMPEROR
Gen. Kajima (Toshiyuki Nishida, L) and Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), in Peter Webber’s “Emperor.” (Kirsty Griffin/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

The decision that Fellers has to make is whether or not Emperor Hirohito should be hanged as a war criminal. Fellers is acutely aware of the necessity of handling the case with kid gloves, since one false move or hasty decision incriminating the emperor could spark an uprising, not to mention a huge, lengthy, expensive occupation. He’s given ten days to figure it all out. Ten.

man with sunglasses and pipe in EMPEROR
Gen. Douglas McArthur (Tommy Lee Jones, C), in Peter Webber’s “Emperor.” (Kirsty Griffin/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

Two Problems for the Protagonist

Two not-so-minor monkey wrenches are thrown into the delicate mix. One is Fellers’s affair of the heart with a Japanese exchange student (Eriko Hatsune) he had attended college with. She’d left him suddenly, without so much as a goodbye note. Ultimately, she affected his military decisions significantly: He’d steered bombing missions away from her home.

The second is Gen. Richter (Colin Moy), a brown-nosing, dog-eat-dog rival who is intent on sabotaging Fellers’s work. Embodying America’s thirst for avenging Pearl Harbor, Richter is intent on seeing Hirohito hanged.

Fellers, assisted by a Japanese interpreter and driver he initially treats badly, sets about questioning top-ranking Japanese war criminals and surreptitiously trying to find his true love. Throughout this ticking-bomb ordeal, Fellers’s humanity ripens and blossoms, enabling him to reach the staggering decision that led to the present-day relationship that America and Japan have with each other.

History Lesson

This is a fascinating period-costume account, a riveting portrayal, and a wonderful history lesson. The names of Pearl Harbor, Gen. MacArthur, and Hiroshima float about in most Americans’ subconscious, but many have never heard the story or witnessed the drama underlying its resolution.

two military men in emperor
Tommy Lee Jones (L) and Matthew Fox in Peter Webber’s “Emperor.” (Kirsty Griffin/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

The cinematography is wonderful as it captures the atmospheres of green bamboo, meticulous Japanese gardens, and bombed-out metropolises. It depicts the custom of sitting on the floor drinking-sake, and sons bowing all the way down to the ground in greeting as aspects of Japanese culture.

man and woman walking in EMPEROR
Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) and Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), in Peter Webber’s “Emperor.” (Kirsty Griffin/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

There are also fascinating conversations concerning Japan’s complete devotion to one set of values, and how, when the pacifistic emperor tells his people that they must “endure the unendurable,” seven million soldiers unquestioningly lay down their weapons in accordance with his divine will.

Very moving are the scenes of Fellers demanding, from fierce Japanese sentinels, a face-to-face with Prince Fumimaro Konoe (Masatoshi Nakamura). Konoe says, “You incinerated two of our cities, turning our children into shadows on the walls.” He gives no conclusive evidence as to the emperor’s guilt.

Struggling to comprehend the Japanese mindset, Fellers remembers asking Aya’s uncle, Gen. Kajima (Toshiyuki Nishida), for help with a paper he was writing about Japanese soldiers. Kajima said that if the United States and Japan went to war, the Japanese would win because of the Japanese soldiers’ sense of duty to the emperor.

man with dark suit and glasses in EMPEROR
Teizaburo Sekiya (Isao Natsuyagi) recites a tanka poem, in Peter Webber’s “Emperor.” (Kirsty Griffin/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

With time running out, Fellers sets up an interview with Teizaburo Sekiya (Isao Natsuyagi), a member of the Privy Council. Sekiya, like Konoe, does not give any evidence to exonerate the emperor. He instead recites a tanka poem that the emperor wrote, in all its Japanese solemn and operatic grandeur. He bows. It is reiterated that if one understands devotion, loyalty, and obedience, one understands the ancient warrior code of Japan.

We learn of how the emperor lived a hermetic life. How he stood up to the militarists. How he had only his word.

bombed-out city-scape in EMPEROR
The bombed-out city of Hiroshima, in Peter Webber’s “Emperor.” (Kirsty Griffin/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

Look the Emperor in the Eye

Due to the conjectural nature of the emperor’s innocence, MacArthur wants to meet for tea, wants to look him in the eye and see what kind of a man he is. As MacArthur says, “I’ve never met an emperor before. Let alone a god.”

(Center three, L–R) Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, and Isao Natsuyagi in Peter Webber’s “Emperor.” (Kirsty Griffin/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

There are rules of engagement when meeting a god, such as do not touch the emperor, do not look him in the eye, always stand to his left, don’t take a photo opportunity, and so on.

The hugely self-confident MacArthur did not behave himself accordingly. The simple, heartbreakingly honest conversation between a god and a man, where Emperor Hirohito offers himself to be punished, rather than Japan, is stunning. No less stunning is MacArthur, stating that he has no intention of punishing Japan or Hirohito and that he only wants to discuss Japan’s reconstruction.

To see exactly how America and Japan transcended their grievances, have a look at this fine film.

Director: Peter Webber
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, Kaori Momoi, Eriko Hatsune, Isao Natsuyagi
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: March 8, 2013 (U.S. release)
Rating value: 4 out of 5 Stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.