Both a history lesson that will enlighten and a love story that will break your heart.
Rating: Can be seen anywhere as long as you have tissue available.
Emperor is a fascinating movie on multiple levels. First and foremost, it opens a window into our past as you follow the quest of American intelligence officers who are given but 10 days to determine if Emperor Hirohito should be prosecuted as a war criminal at the end of World War II. Their task is profoundly difficult, particularly given the sad fact that much of urban Japan has been devastated by B-29 incendiary raids that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Beaten but enormously proud, many members of the Japanese military and civilian high command would rather commit suicide than expose an Emperor they consider to be a God.
The movie is seen through the eyes of U.S. General Bonner Fellers, played with gripping compassion by Matthew Fox. Interrogating individuals like former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, General Fellers is forced to confront the enormous contradiction of condemning the military expansion of Japan while ignoring the history of brutal western colonization where the United States played a role. After all, how can one condemn the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and excuse the fact that the United States did the same thing at the turn of the 20th century under President Theodore Roosevelt?
But as General Fellers wrestles with his conscience, he simply wants to complete his assignment, not get involved in a history lesson. While he is helped by the fact that he spent time in Japan before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he hides the agony flowing from the tragic fact that he has long been in love with a Japanese girl. He met Aya Shimada (a beautiful and charming Eriko Hatsune) in the States when both were attending college in the 1930’s, and he accepted an assignment in Japan as referred to above in part to learn why she suddenly returned home with no notice or contact of any kind.
General Fellers tries to determine the Emperor’s culpability by day while spending his nights desperately trying to determine if Ms. Shimada is alive. Discovering that the grade school where she taught was destroyed in an allied attack, he is not helped by the role he previously played in identifying bombing targets.
Tommy Lee Jones gives an expected superior performance in his role as General Douglas MacArthur. More to the point, you quickly see MacArthur’s profound intelligence and incredible vanity.
As noted in Max Hastings’ great book, “Retribution”, a story of the battle for Japan in 1944-45, the atmosphere surrounding MacArthur’s headquarters was considered profoundly unhealthy. MacArthur’s demeanor throughout the war became ever more autocratic, and he displayed a growing acute persecution complex poignantly reflected by Mr. Jones.
On the other hand, Jones does not ignore General MacArthur’s fervent commitment to rebuild Japan. While the allies could not ignore the prior conduct of the Emperor, he appointed General Fellers to the task because he needed a man who recognized the difference between vengeance and justice.
What made Emperor so compelling is that it follows a beautiful love story through frequent flashbacks. Two people whose hearts had bonded were forced apart by conflicting societies that simply did not understand the other. Forces were at work that were destroying much of the world, and how could they hope that their relationship would survive with them living in this monstrous environment.
As you follow General Fellers into war-torn Japanese cities and countrysides, you are forced to confront the actions of the Japanese in precipitating World War II and America’s monstrous response. From a philosophical and ethical standpoint, was dropping two atomic bombs on unimportant cities any more justified than the bombing of military establishments at Pearl Harbor?
Finally, I must note an emotionally mesmerizing scene where General Fellers visits his lover’s family home after the war. In the process, he is reduced to tears as he talks with her father, a Japanese General who served at both Saipan and Okinawa. I wasn’t the only person in the theater fighting back those same tears, and you probably won’t be either.