September 30, 2013


Watching the trailers for Emperor, I feared a revisionist docudrama in the works, suggesting that General MacArthur had an active curiosity about Emperor Hirohito's possible culpability as a "war criminal."

As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. In the end, Emperor has MacArthur simply using General Bonner Fellers to rubber-stamp the outcome he'd planned for all along.

In any case, the narrative is so meandering and muddled it'd be hard to read any political or ideological point of view into what takes place on screen.

The problem is a script that tries to do two incongruent things at once: Fellers investigating the emperor's war-time record, on the one hand, and chasing down Aya, his long-lost love, on the other.

Neither ends up going anywhere worth making a movie about. Only at the very end does a compelling story emerge, when Fellers stumbles on an account of an attempted palace coup in the final hours before the surrender.

The best cinematic account of those events is Japan's Longest Day (1967), with Toshiro Mifune as die-hard War Minister General Korechika Anami.

The argument in that film and this one is that since the coup was an attempt to prevent the surrender against the ostensible will of the emperor, he must have been in the right about everything else too.

The moral logic doesn't follow, but it's a more interesting thesis that what actually transpired. In real life, Fellers had already convinced MacArthur to exonerate Hirohito, not that MacArthur needed any convincing.

MacArthur was Hirohito's biggest cheerleader, and would later clearly state that "the preservation of the Emperor system was my fixed purpose. It was inherent and integral to Japanese political and cultural survival."

It was up to Fellers to get everybody else involved in on the fix and then throw Hideki Tojo under the bus during the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

The historical Fellers is far more interesting as an amoral manipulator of events on a par with the Cigarette Smoking Man in The X-Files. But that's not the kind of heroic character you can build this sort of a movie around.

I would have dispensed with the romance from the start, using it instead as an excuse for Fellers to hook up with Aya's uncle, (the fictitious) General Kajima, played by the great character actor Toshiyuki Nishida.

Together they would stitch together an account of the attempted coup. This way, the script could tread firm and fairly objective historical ground while describing in depth a series of truly dramatic events.

Emperor is a good example of a "historical" drama where a little more fiction would have served the available facts much better.

Related posts

Emperor trailer
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan
The Pacific War on screen

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# posted by Blogger Joe
5/16/2014 9:40 PM   
Just watched Emperor on Netflix. It's way more revisionist than you suggest. Hirohito was involved in war planning up to his neck. For example, he directly authorized the Japanese Army to ignore international treaties and use poison gas in China.

It's painfully obvious to me that MacArthur wanted the Emperor alive and was only worried about being blindsided. Fellers was ultimately a patsy and potential fall guy if it came to that. That would have been a far more interesting story, though admittedly a very hard one to write.)

The biggest problem, though, is that the movie is deathly boring.