In his rule over Japan as Supreme Commander of the occupying forces after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur was probably as benign a dictator as history has recorded. His enlightened policies led to a Japanese post war economic recovery from wartime devastation, and to post-war harmony between Japan and the West that replaced virulent wartime hatred. Emperor deals with his first days in Japan after the Japanese surrender, and in particular, with his momentous decision not to include the Emperor Hirohito among the Japanese war criminals, a judgement made despite political and popular clamor. Allied war propaganda had demonized the Japanese people and Hirohito in particular, and Japanese propaganda had done much the same with the other side. MacArthur’s decision became the lynch-pin of his policy there: to respect the cultural differences instead of seeking to override them, and to try to bring together the best that both Japan and the western powers had to offer.
Shiro Okamoto’s book ‘His Majesty’s Salvation’ has been adapted for the screen by Vera Blasi and David Klass and renamed EMPEROR. Director Peter Webber (Hannibal Rising, Girl with a Pearl Earring) keeps what might have been a patchwork quilt story tightly woven and if the movie delivers nothing else, it gives insight into the relationship between Japan and the US after the devastation of the atomic bomb and the resultant surrender of Japan. For that alone the film is well worth watching. But the main quibble I had with the movie, aside from my obvious recommendation is that it tries to create a sense of urgency and suspense, but since it’s based on historical events it largely fails. Anyone who has taken history in high school should know how it turned out. With the exception of a couple of scenes, there also isn’t much of an emotionally charged drama going on either. Although I enjoyed it, I cannot deny that it moved at a more sedate pace and lacked great urgency and suspense.
The movie deliberately avoids clarifying which emperor the title refers to. On the surface it may seem to denote Hirohito, but as supreme commander MacArthur had near imperial power, and did not hesitate to use it. The film concentrates on one of his protégés and close advisors, General Bonner Fellers, a Japanese expert on whose opinion MacArthur chooses to rely. Fellers was close to MacArthur, having served with him even before the war. Fellers loved Japan and had visited it, and had produced for the American military a crucial assessment of the Japanese military mind. He had additionally predicted war with Japan well in advance of Pearl Harbour. In real life, Fellers had some connections to Japan, even to the Imperial Household, and he had a close friendship with a former female Japanese exchange student whom he knew from Earlham College in Indiana. He rejoined MacArthur in 1943 and accompanied him during the Supreme Commander’s momentous first days in Japan. The film strongly hints that MacArthur had already made up his mind about the treatment of Hirohito, which he almost certainly had, but wanted Fellers to supply the rationale for his decision.
Not covered in this film was the fact that Hirohito had some brothers, at least one of them would have been a more than willing tool of the army and navy chiefs who conducted Japan’s war. He faced until the surrender the distinct possibility of being overthrown himself by one of his siblings. Matthew Fox and Tommy Lee Jones and the Japanese cast are perfectly cast in their roles and I recommend this film as good entertainment and for those with an interest in the Far East. The biggest question once the credits roll is this: who is the “Emperor” to which the title alludes to? Is it the Emperor of Japan, or MacArthur himself? Power may corrupt, but can it be beneficial? Historical dramas should make the viewer as such questions. I can’t see this movie attracting a very wide audience – it’s not a war movie as such in that there are no grand battle scenes just an aftermath of war movie. But it is very interesting and was a movie that needed to be made. Of course one wishes for more insight into Hirohito’s role in the war but that is probably all the investigators found out in reality.