Doing Our Duty While Losing Our Humanity
Like his 2003 film The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Peter Webber's Emperor is the long and involved story behind a single image—a photograph of the U.S.'s General Douglas MacArthur and Japan's Emperor Hirohito in July of 1946. The image is normal-looking, pedestrian even, if one does not know the back-story, which is extraordinary, without precedent at the time, and represented a brave new world shattering a history of 2,000 years.
Japan had surrendered to the U.S. soon after what one character describes as turning Japan "into the largest crematorium the world has ever known." General Douglas MacArthur had been established the "Supreme Commander" of the occupied territory, a role one author has described as making him "an American Caesar." One of his first tasks is the establishment of blame and war-crimes tribunals, and uppermost in his mind is what "to do" with the Emperor, Japan's supreme leader held to be almost a deity for his people, not to be looked at directly, not to be photographed, not to be touched. America is calling for his head, but MacArthur, wily politico that he is, ponders what will become of a Japan without its Emperor, if tried, found guilty and hung by the American conquerors. The "Supreme Commander" sees only chaos and revolt in such a future.
So, he assigns the task to someone else.
Emperor is the story of that investigation, as carried out by General Bonner Fellers at MacArthur's behest. In the film, Fellers is conflicted: America is calling for the Emperor's head, but the reality of controlling a defeated nation hinges on his fate; Fellers is a Japan-ophile, and yet the iron bureaucracy surrounding the Emperor makes his job difficult getting answers, and the 2,000 year old traditions are part and parcel of what keeps the shattered country together; he is also looking for a girl that he befriended in the States during college, but her parents demanded she return to Japan, and now he's looking for her in the ashes of the city she was last in; other Army officers are questioning Fellers credentials to do an unbiased investigation despite his history with Japan, and are pushing for his demotion in their own biased fashion.
The story is based on a novel by Shiro Okamoto, and might be playing with the character of Fellers a bit. In fact, Fellers was an extreme conservative and a member of the John Birch Society post-war. He had also been involved in a disastrous tenure in the European front when his reports were intercepted by Axis powers, and the intelligence influenced the outcomes of battles in Northern Africa (entirely due to the Army's insistence that Fellers NOT use coded encryptions to send his reports). The man portrayed in the film may not be the one doing his duty in Japan, but the outcomes are the same, and that's where the fascination lies.
What Fellers learns in his frustrating investigation does lead to an ultimate decision, and is tied to the character of Emperor Hirohito. But the layers of protection keep him from learning about the man and his actions in the final perilous days of the war, delaying any decision about the Emperor's implications in war-crimes. And its wrapped up entirely in tradition, reflected in the protocol id one should ever come face to face (highly unlikely) with the Emperor. He cannot leave the Imperial palace. You cannot look him in the eye. He cannot be touched. He cannot be photographed.
And yet, there's that picture, taken in MacArthur's office as the men have their first meeting after Japan's surrender. And that, to use the old phrase, is worth more than the traditional thousand words, about Japan's supreme leader.
The story is fascinating, but the film telling that story drains a bit of that fascination out of it. Perhaps, the twists and turns in Fellers investigation are designed to "open up" the movie in terms of post-war conditions, but the "Romeo and Juliet" sub-plot feels forced and a bit "traditional" in movie terms. In the performances, Jones' MacArthur feels more like reflections of the actor's personality than the public persona the general showed (itself a carefully controlled performance), and as much effort as Fox puts into his role of Fellers, the character comes off as not very interesting, constrained as it is by duty, protocol, and sub-plots.
Still, the movie feels like one of those stories that need to be told, but one wonders if it could be done with a touch more flair, without damaging the content of the truth.
Emperor is a Rental.