Imagine if the president of the United States was considered by U.S. citizenry to be a living god. Preposterous! Such a concept boggles the mind. But so it was with Emperor Hirohito of Japan, his deification reflecting the ancient heritage of divine emperors.
It’s the end of World War II; atomic mushroom clouds hover over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan breaks down. American politicians want to know if Japanese “god” Hirohito instigated Pearl Harbor. Someone has to get to the bottom of it. The poetically rendered film “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 ridiculously elongated corncob pipe—hands Fellers the job.
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.
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 he had attended college with. She had left him suddenly, without so much as a goodbye note. Ultimately, she affected his military decisions to a not entirely insignificant degree—he had steered bombing missions away from her home.
The second is General Richter (Colin Moy), a brown-nosing, dog-eat-dog rival who is intent on shanghaiing Fellers’s work. Embodying America’s thirst for avenging Pearl Harbor, Richter wants Hirohito hanged.
Assisted by a Japanese interpreter and driver he initially treats badly, Fellers sets about questioning top-rank 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.
This is a fascinating period-costume account, a riveting portrayal, and a wonderful history lesson. The names of Pearl Harbor, General MacArthur, and Hiroshima float about in most Americans’ subconscious minds, but many have never heard the story or witnessed the drama underlying its resolution.
The cinematography is wonderful as it captures the atmospheres of green bamboo, meticulous Japanese gardens, and bombed-out metropolises. It depicts sitting-on-the-floor-drinking-sake Japanese culture, and sons bowing all the way down to the ground in greeting.
There are also conversations concerning Japan’s complete devotion to one set of values, and how, when the pacifistic emperor told his people they must “endure the unendurable,” seven million soldiers unquestioningly laid 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 Fumimaro Konoe.
Konoe says, “Your bombs turned our children into shadows on the wall.” He recites a Tanka poem that the emperor wrote, in all its solemn operatic grandeur. He bows. We feel the spirit of Shinto. We learn 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.
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 the emperor is. As he says, “I never met an emperor before. Let alone a god.”
There are rules of engagement when meeting a god: “Do not touch the emperor, do not look him in the eye, always stand to his left, do not take photo opportunity,” and so on.
To find out whether the arrogant MacArthur behaves himself, to hear the outcome of a simple, heartbreakingly honest conversation between a god and a man, and to find out how America and Japan transcended their grievances, see this fine film.
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