Mark Reviews Movies



2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Webber

Cast: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune, Masayoshi Haneda, Masatô Ibu, Isao Natsuyagi, Colin Moy, Masatoshi Nakamura, Toshiykui Nishida

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violent content, brief strong language and smoking (historial))

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 3/8/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 7, 2013

After a recording of Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan in August 1945 (without using the word "surrender"), Allied forces occupied the country with the hopes of transitioning Japan from an empire to a constitutional monarchy. The other, less glamorous role of the occupying force was to arrest Japanese officials suspected of war crimes for trial by military tribunal. Emperor documents the investigation into whether or not Hirohito himself should be arrested.

The question of the emperor's guilt or innocence divides historians to this day. It's complex, and only part of that complexity has to do with Hirohito's responsibility the war and the various atrocities perpetrated by the military or the lack thereof. If he's found innocent, the political repercussions could be damning, given that a sizeable percentage of the population in the United States believe the emperor should be held accountable. If he's guilty, it only gets worse; the movie finely summarizes that possibility as the choice between the desire for justice (or vengeance, depending on the motives of the people seeking the move) and the need to for a successful transition in Japan.

The emperor is not simply a monarch but seen as a descendant of the gods, a perception that, after decades of indoctrination throughout the country, led to what characters in the movie describe as a fever state—a kind of religious fanaticism that would lead soldiers and civilians to suicidal extremes to fulfill their duty and maintain the honor of their country and their leader. The emperor's arrest could very easily incite an uprising against occupying Allied forces or mass suicide, neither of which, obviously, would be beneficial to the goal.

No one understands this mindset better than Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), who spent time in Japan before the war attempting to study the mentality of the average soldier there. He returns to Tokyo after the surrender, saddened to see the city decimated and desperate to find Aya (Eriko Hatsune), the woman he loves but hasn't seen since he left the first time, in a subplot that only serves to distract from the more intriguing central story. At night, he wanders through the streets of the city to a local bar, where he drowns his sorrows and receives looks of suspicion and, in one case that leads to a brawl, disdain from the locals.

General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), the no-nonsense Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers with ambitions to become the President one day, has assigned Fellers to determine if Hirohito should be put on trial for war crimes. The political brass in Washington want the decision quickly, and Fellers has only 10 days to gather testimonial evidence from political, military, and imperial officers—several of whom are awaiting trials of their own, some of whom are afraid of being arrested themselves, and most of whom would never implicate their emperor in any wrongdoing.

Fellers scrambles to interview various players, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo (Shôhei Hino), who attempted to kill himself before his arrest and, in one of those great absurdities of war, is being kept alive by military medics so that he can be hanged. Fellers manages to obtain appointments with a few key people, from Tojo's predecessor Fumimaro Konoe (Masatoshi Nakamura) to one of Hirohito's chief advisors Kōichi Kido (Masatô Ibu).

Their questionings lead to some fascinating discussions of inner-circle meetings throughout the war (It's an ideological fight between militarists, who want to expand the empire by any means necessary, and pragmatists, who believe such expansion will only lead to devastation, within the government), the role of national identity in the execution of it, and the relativism of history being written by the victors. Konoe, though opposed to the war at its beginning, cannot help himself from wondering what Japan did in its imperialistic annexations and occupations that make them any different than other countries throughout history that had done similar. The dropping of two atomic bombs on civilian populations (The movie opens with footage of the bomb obliterating Hiroshima) only heightens the argument of hypocrisy.

The screenplay by Vera Blasi and David Klass (based on the book His Majesty's Salvation by Shiro Okamoto) has to contest with not only history but also its central protagonist. Even though this is a less-discussed area of the post-war record, the conclusion is obvious, and Fellers' ultimate decision is an opinion that he holds from the start (Both Fellers and MacArthur fear the spread of the Soviet Union to the region more than they want to get at the truth). The combination results in a distinct lack of a dramatic arc to the proceedings, and Fellers' passive search for Aya, which is meant to compensate, is only effective in sections of the flashbacks to their romance that reveal details of pre-war nationalistic fervor.

Emperor may take some liberties and omit a sizeable chunk of information (There are only passing references to the Second Sino-Japanese War, meaning the general impression offered is that "war crimes" amounts to the attack on Pearl Harbor), but as a concise reduction of history, the movie does get at some truth. As an involving piece of storytelling, though, it's lacking.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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