By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Peter Webber’s historical epic “Emperor” takes place immediately after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. On the 15th of that month, Japanese Emperor Hirohito addressed his people via a recorded announcement played over national radio — the first time in Japanese history that the general public had heard an Emperor’s voice. Hirohito told his people that he was accepting the United States’ demand of unconditional surrender.
Webber’s movie, set after the Americans occupy Japan, revolves around three relationships, with General Bonner Fellers (played by Matthew Fox) at the center of each. The first is a relationship with commanding officer General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones). Fellers must deliver a report judging the Emperor liable or not liable for starting the war against the United States with the Pearl Harbor bombing.
Fellers is also looking for a young Japanese woman, Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), whom he met at college and then lost touch with after she returned to her home country. Aiding Fellers on his personal and political missions, is chauffeur and translator Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda), who gamely drives the General over the ruined landscapes of Tokyo, but holds a few secrets close to his own heart.
The movie is allegedly based on “His Majesty’s Salvation” by Shiro Okamoto. However, that book doesn’t appear to be in print in English. It’s hard to know without reference to the source material whether Aya Shimada actually existed. There doesn’t seem to be anything on the web connecting her to the actual, historical Bonner Fellers, and she seems a little too convenient as a plot gimmick. Still, Hatsune, who also appeared in “Norwegian Wood,” comes off striking, with a warm smile and perpetually nervous eyes.
As MacArthur, Tommy Lee Jones isn’t given much to do past his usual hardass shtick, and that’s a shame for a man who occasionally demonstrates (as with his uncertainty and desperation in “No Country For Old Men”) that he’s capable of many more dimensions. Meanwhile, Fellers must peel back the layers of the men surrounding Hirohito.
Koichi Kido, played by Masato Ibu, was the Lord Keeper of the Official Seal and advised the Emperor very closely during the war. He has one story to tell, but others close to Hirohito have others. One claims that the Emperor responded to his minister’s warmongering by addressing them directly — a rare thing indeed — to recite ambiguous classical poetry. Whether this is true or not, this certainly does make for a compelling story.
Fellers, as played by Fox, loves Japan, but is often horrified by what it has become. His travels take him through demolished blocks that extend for miles, and homeless Japanese forage for whatever they can scrounge in the ruins and the rain.
I once had a teacher who’d been with the occupying forces after the surrender. He never forgot looking through the window of his train at the Japanese faces, looking in at him. And the question hanging in the air, he said, inescapable in any language, “Why have you done this to us?” He was tempted to say back, he told his class, “Well, why did you bomb Pearl Harbor?” But he faltered at that point, and I think he could not imagine what else to say. I’ve always remembered the story, and how he trailed off at the end.
My teacher is probably dead by now, as are most of the men in the occupying force, and most of the Japanese who survived the war. “Emperor,” however ambiguous and incomplete, gives the viewer an idea of what was at stake in those days. For that, I believe that it’s worth a look. (end)
“Emperor” opens Friday, March 8 in Seattle. Check local listings for theaters, prices, and showtimes.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.