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Emperor (2013)
Movie Reviews

Emperor (2013)

Although well cast and decently acted, this depiction of the Japanese occupation is overly abridged and doesn’t adequately examine the link between culture and warfare.

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Emperor, which takes place in 1945 during the Japanese occupation, attempts to examine the link between culture and warfare, specifically in relation to Japan. The argument, made not only by director Peter Webber and screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass but also by academics and historians, is that Emperor Hirohito could not have been tried as a war criminal for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, simply because his complicity was so deeply woven into the fabric of Japanese cultural belief, which places strong emphasis on loyalty and obedience. There’s also great debate, in both the film and in real life, over how much control he actually had over the Japanese military during the war; it has been suggested that he was nothing more than a figurehead, behaving strictly according to protocol and having no real hand in the decision-making process.

One of the film’s biggest issues is that its arguments in favor of culturalism are purely academic; there are plenty of well-worded speeches regarding the subject, but there are little if any visual or behavioral examples of it. All I wanted was a depiction, to be shown that the Japanese are culturally bound and not merely told. Dialogue can only take you so far, especially when your film takes a sociopolitical position some audiences will likely find objectionable. The fact that Emperor doesn’t take that extra step doesn’t make it a failure, although it does seriously undermine it’s point that not everything can be divided into black and white in matters of war. With just a little more effort put into examining the underpinnings of Japanese culture, Webber would have had the thoughtful movie he set out to make.

Another issue is that we’re given a very narrow impression of what the occupation was, namely a successful effort to transform Japan into a westernized democracy. Following Japan’s surrender in August of 1945, the Allied powers, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, peacefully took control of the country and, over the next six years, disarmed, liberalized, and democratized it into a nation with a pro-American orientation. If audiences are to take what they’re shown in the film at face value, the only purpose of the occupation was to go on a manhunt for Hirohito and round up all suspected war criminals and put them on trial. I’ll be the first to admit that inaccuracy doesn’t automatically break a historically-based film. However, when an event of this magnitude is so drastically downsized, audiences are bound to feel as if something is missing.

One of the casualties of this downsizing is General MacArthur, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. In real life, MacArthur had a gigantic role to play in the occupation; becoming the de facto leader of Japan for three years, he oversaw the drafting of a new constitution, one that stripped the Emperor of his military authority, liberated women, guaranteed fundamental human rights, made racial discrimination illegal, and decentralized the police and local government. None of this is mentioned in the film; he has been reduced to a background character, appearing only in a handful of scenes that depict him as a gruff old man with a colorful sense of humor. His only significant scene is the final one, when he finally gets to meet Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) in person after much badgering and negotiating with his closest advisors. This dramatization leads to the moment when the now famous photograph of Hirohito and MacArthur standing next to each other is taken.

The film’s central character is actually MacArthur’s protégé, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), who existed in real life but has been fictionalized by Webber and Blasi. For the purposes of this film, his mission in Japan is just as personal as it is professional – he’s in search of a Japanese woman he fell in love with when she attended an American college as a foreign exchange student before the war. Her name is Aya (Eriko Hatsune), and we see her in flashback sequences that reveal how geographical, political, and cultural differences tested their love. To an extent, I understand her inclusion in the screenplay; the conflict she stirs within Fellers reflects the film’s theme of bridging the gap between progressive ideals and ancient customs. At the same time, the entire subplot is a fossilized war-movie cliché that has long since overstayed its welcome.

An attempt is made at creating tension when a suspicious soldier tries to drive a wedge between MacArthur and Fellers. Essentially, he approaches them individually and gives each a reason to suspect the other. Whether or not this is historically accurate is not the point; there’s nothing satisfying about this subplot, simply because it’s inserted at random and resolved rather nonchalantly. Perhaps if it had been extracted from Emperor, expanded into a full-length screenplay, and developed into its own movie, then maybe we would have something to talk about. All in all, Emperor is a decently cast and well acted film that lacks an engaging structure. I’m about the farthest thing there is from a history buff, but even I know that certain true stories deserve more respect than some filmmakers give them.

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi