By Kent Wilson
Early in the morning September 2, 1945 the Second World War ended on the deck of USS Missouri. The American battleship–the last of its class ever built–loomed in Tokyo Bay under cloudy grey skies. Representatives onboard from Japan and nine Allied countries took 23 minutes to sign the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, marking the end of four years of brutal warfare in the Pacific Ocean and South East Asia.
Seen from the deck of Missouri, Tokyo was a smoldering wasteland of crumbling buildings. Amid the devastation wandered many unseen, hollow souls. Relentless Allied bombing had effectively halved the city’s pre-war population of seven million. Onshore and all across the Japanese archipelago, those who survived awaited the fate of impending occupation. The war was over, but the Allies had yet to set foot on the Home Islands.
Eighteen days earlier Japanese Emperor Hirohito had delivered an extraordinary radio broadcast to the people of Japan. Considered a god, no Emperor had ever descended into the public realm to speak openly. The message he delivered was dire. Japan had vanquished every would-be occupying power throughout its two thousand year history. All but one, and that force now loomed offshore. Hirohito implored his subjects to accept defeat with quiet reservation and as he said, “Pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.”
This is the backstory into which Emperor is set.
General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) is tasked with heading up the occupation of Japan. His first order of business is to determine which members of the Japanese military and government (including the Emperor) are guilty of war crimes. Watching Jones wrap himself up in the character—not much of a leap for a veteran actor of many such roles—his acting talent begs the question, “Is Jones portraying MacArthur, or is MacArthur portraying Jones?”
Pursuing his mission, MacArthur enlists the support of Japanese ‘expert’ General Bonner Fellers (Mathew Fox). MacArthur foists upon Fellers the unenviable and literally impossible task of determining the Emperor’s culpability. In ten days. Alone. This Herculean labour is exacerbated by Fellers’ peripatetic search for his Japanese girlfriend Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune) last seen in happier times before the outbreak of war. Fox does an admirable job wrestling with a host of conflicting emotions manifested in both his real-time military duties, and a series of pre-war flashbacks with Shimada during the springtime of their love.
Interspersed between meetings with high-level Japanese bureaucrats, Fellers’ search for Shimada ultimately leads to her uncle, General Kajima (Toshiyuki Nishida). The essence of the film decants from Fellers’ intimate conversations with the Japanese general. Fellers learns of Shimada’s fate and wrestles with the conflicting tatemae (the way things appear) versus honne (the way things really are) elements of the Japanese psyche. It is a pivotal moment in the film. The girl is gone, but her country remains, wounded, in his hands.
Before Fellers leaves the general for good, Kajima delivers two powerful lines (worth the price of admission), perhaps seeking exoneration in blunt castigation:
“We Japanese are selfless people capable of immense sacrifice because of our complete devotion to a set of ideals. We are also ruthless warriors capable of unspeakable crimes because of that same complete devotion.”
‘Based’ on actual events (note: artistic licence in effect), the film aligns most notably with the historical record in the de facto exoneration of the Emperor from war crimes. After an evening of dissolute wandering (including a gratuitous bar fight) Fellers crafts a culturally sensitive and politically astute document that MacArthur begrudgingly accepts as part of the American burden of nation-building.
So much for ten days of soul-searching.
But Manifest Destiny is preserved and life emerges from a ruined nation and a broken heart.
Tinseltown wouldn’t have it any other way.
Emperor was directed by Peter Webber and was released on September 2012 at TIFF.