Saturday, March 9, 2013
Chicago SunTimes (R. Roeper) review
Emperor  (directed by Peter Webber, screenplay by Vera Blasi and David Klass based on the book His Majesty's Salvation by Shiro Okamoto) is IMHO an excellent historical drama about the early days of America's post-WW II occupation of Japan.
The film begins with the arrival of General Douglas MacArthur (played superbly by Tommy Lee Jones) and his entourage, including his Japan expert, Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers (also played excellently by Matthew Fox), in Tokyo a short time after Japan's formal surrender.
They arrive in a plane, landing on Tokyo's airport -- one plane with 20 some odd American occupation officials. Yes, Japan had surrendered, but could they trust the Japanese to not just shoot them as they stepped off the plane and then drove from the airport to MacArthur's designated headquarters (a multistory building across the street from the entrance to the Emperor's palace)?
Fellers tells MacArthur that they can trust the Japanese because their surrender came directly from the word of the Emperor. Whether MacArthur believes him or not, he knows well that THERE'S NOTHING HE COULD ABOUT IT ANYWAY, if the Japanese decided to just shoot them all. So before stepping off the plane, he tells the entourage to take-off their side arms and leave them on the plane and simply step off the plane showing some "Good ole American swagger..."
They get off the plane, MacArthur poses for some pictures. They hop on a jeep and take the drive to HQ. As they do, both MacArthur (and the audience) can not help but notice that as their jeep passes the assembled Japanese honor guard, the soldiers methodically turn around and face AWAY from the jeep. Why are they doing that? Is it a sign of contempt toward the arriving occupiers. Fellers tells MacArthur, no, this action does not express contempt but rather respect: "They're taught to turn away their gaze from the Emperor as well." Arriving MacArthur realizes that he's being greeted by the Japanese as a quasi-God and is reminded that the Japanese have considered their Emperor as a God as well. Wow. (And remember folks that MacArthur was famous/infamous for having an enormous ego as it is ...)
A few days after arriving at HQ, Fellers is commanded by MacArthur to lead the rapid (as simultaneous as possible) arrest of pretty much the entire leadership, political and military of Japan's previous regime. Fellers tells the arresting MPs that the arrests must be as rapid and coordinated (simultaneous) as possible to avert the possibility of the figures being arrested committing suicide. Of the 25 some odd leaders being arrested (including Japan's Wartime Prime Minister, Tojo) only three committ suicide before the American MPs are able to get to them (Tojo tried to commit suicide but when he put his revolver to his chest and shot himself the bullet just barely missed the heart). By getting all but three of Japan's leaders including Tojo, Fellers once again proves himself to MacArthur.
A few days after that, MacArthur gives Fellers a new task. He tells Fellers that they've been ordered by Washington to determine IN TEN DAYS whether or not Japan's Emperor himself should be arrested, tried and presumably hanged as a War Criminal. Fellers tells MacArthur that it'd be impossible to determine the Emperor's war guilt that all of Japan's wartime leadership would go to their deaths rather than implicate a Man they considered a God. MacArthur tells Fellers that he's been spot-on in everything else since they've arrived in Tokyo and that he had complete confidence that FELLERS would be able to give him (and MacArthur's superiors in Washington) the necessary information to make this call IN THE TEN DAYS they were given. Wow. Fellers and MacArthur exchange salutes, Fellers returns to his staff and tells them that they have 10 days to answer this most crucial question. The rest of the film unspools from there ...
A good part of the film that unspools deals with Brig. General Fellers' competence for arriving at an answer to MacArthur's/Washington's question. And it turns out that he really was someone who knew Japan about as well as anyone from the United States at the time:
Yes, while studying Japanese culture/language in the United States, he did fall in love with a young Japanese woman who was studying in the United States. Her name was Aya Shamida (played in the film by Eriko Hatsume). What was a Japanese woman doing in the United States in the 1920s/30s studying English? She tells him, "I haven't necessarily behaved as a good Japanese young woman..." (She was "sent away" by her family, in part, because she apparently caused them some trouble back home). However, she does return back to Japan (quite suddenly, in fact). Fellers, given a post-graduate task by the U.S. army to write a report on the values driving the Japanese military, goes to Japan some years later (from his post, then in the Philippines) and while there looks her up. He lucks out. The U.S. and Japan were still not at War at the time and Aya's uncle was a General in the Japanese army. Through his friendship with her, he gets to know her uncle and the uncle then helps him understand the values and honor driven mentality of Japan's military and its soldiers. Eventually Fellers finishes his paper and has to leave. Then the war comes. When Fellers arrives with MacArthur following the war he tries to find and reconnect with Aya and her family...
The film is a reminder of the value of friendships and being able to talk to one's potential adversaries. Thanks to Fellers' knowledge of Japan through his friendship with Aya and her family, he helped MacArthur and the United States not merely "win the war" but above all win the subsequent peace.
I also believe that the film offers a much needed reevaluation of Gen. MacArthur's character as well. During WW II and much of the Korean conflict, he was lionized in the United States as a hero. Then after Korea and during much of my life time, MacArthur has been portrayed primarily negatively, as an ego maniac, who nearly plunged the world into a third World War during the Korean conflict.
This film is reminder that MacArthur's greatest legacy was not actually his generalship during war, but his ability (thanks to his willingness to take the advice of his advisers like Kellers) to listen and turn Japan from a country mistrusted by much of the world into a stable bastion of peace in the Far East. And yes, the whole world is better for for MacArthur's achievement in this regard.
Finally, as a Catholic I could not help but note with some pride that the film made quietly but "for those with eyes to see" absolutely clear that Aya was a Catholic, recalling the 500 year long (since the arrival of the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier in Nagasaki in the 1500s) often tortured history of Catholicism in Japan.
All in all, I found this to be an excellent historical drama about a critical time in history that easily could have turned-out far worse than it did. MacArthur, for all his faults and monumental ego, turned out to be a good man in Japan.
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