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Title: Emperor
Director: Peter Webber
Cast: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune a.o.
Released: 2014
Playing time: 101 minutes

Once the war against Germany was over in May 1945, Japan was forced to surrender as well to the Allies in September 1945. The question how Hitler and his associates should be punished was not a difficult one for the conquerors but in the land of the rising sun this was quite another matter though; the Emperor was worshipped as a God by his people and honor played a very important role in the Japanese military. Yet, the Emperor was considered by most Americans an accomplice to the millions of dead during World War Two.

Following the capitulation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the American forces in the Far East. His most important task was the rebuilding of Japan. Another important task entailed investigating the role of Japanese Emperor Hirohito during World War Two. Those tasks were potentially contrasting. Arresting and sentencing the Emperor, still immensely popular, as a criminal might well result in massive revolt, suicide and an instable Japan. On the other hand, MacArthur had to deal with the Allied leaders and the world population which had suffered under Japanese occupation. They demanded justice and wanted the criminals to be punished.

Fortunately MacArthur had a real expert on Japan on his staff, Brigadier General Bonner Frank Fellers, (February 7, 1896 – October 7, 1973). Fellers had graduated from West Point in June 1916. During World War One he did not see action but between 1920 and 1930 he was posted to the Philippines 3 times. He also wrote a paper on the "psychology of the Japanese soldier". In the early years of World War Two he was military attaché in Egypt responsible for monitoring and reporting on British military operations in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. In the summer of 1943, he joined General MacArthur’s staff. Apart from other duties, he was responsible for psychological warfare. After the war against Japan, this general wrote some influential memorandums on what should be done about Emperor Hirohito. He left the army in 1946 and for the rest of his life he was involved in politics in addition to some other duties.

The investigation by General Fellers into Hirohito’s role during World War Two is the main theme of the American movie "Emperor". The story allows him a period of 10 days in which to find sufficient evidence to determine whether the Emperor should be tried by the Allied tribunal in Tokyo or not. During his search, Fellers also tries to collect information about the Japanese female student Aya he was in love with before the war.

"Emperor" starts with authentic black-and-white pictures of the devastation caused by the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next we see the arrival of MacArthur (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and soon, the task he has been given becomes clear. The movie shows talks between the American general and the closest associates of the Emperor, alternated by flashbacks to the pre-war period of the blossoming love between Fellers and a Japanese female exchange student.

Gradually, Fellers collects an increasing amount of information on Hirohito’s role during World War Two. It becomes more and more likely Hirohito should not be dethroned and punished but deserves amnesty. This decision will surely not be cheered in America however. Until the end of the movie, it remains tense which decision will be taken. That only becomes clear when MacArthur and Hirohito meet. The movie ends with authentic recordings of the principal persons and the rest of their lives.

"Emperor" is presented as a movie based on a true story but it is unclear however, which part is fiction and which part is based on fact. For instance, it is questionable whether Fellers had a girlfriend before the war at all. Moreover, it seems unlikely he had the time and the opportunity to look for his love during his search for evidence.

The movie also seems to simply an issue equally interesting as complex. Fellers was to make a decision within 10 days with limited means at his disposal. In reality, this investigation took over 5 months. The romantic story about the American and a Japanese woman lends a somewhat airy touch to the movie which comes across as artificial in a movie like this.

For fans of action movies or for those looking for an in-depth analysis of Hirohito’s position, "Emperor" is not the right movie. It is an accessible movie which tells about the aftermath of World War Two in Japan in a low profile manner. For the viewer lacking much previous knowledge about the Tokyo trial, "Emperor" is a good start.

Rating: Good


Translated by:
Arnold Palthe
Article by:
David Izelaar
Published on:
Last edit on: