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EMPEROR - a film review
With our country going through a period where leadership is in short supply, it was enjoyable to watch a film today that exhibited real leadership and where the men in those leadership positions, two WWII generals, did what was right for Japan and the world following Japan's surrender, despite what popular opinion was at the time.
The emperor in question was Japan's Emperor Showa (Hirohito) and the two generals in question were Supreme Commander and General Douglas MacArthur and General Bonner Fellers. MacArthur and Fellers had to decide what to do with Emperor Hirohito as the U.S. embarked on rebuilding Japan after the war. Should he be tried for war crimes and executed or should mercy abound and Hirohito be able to continue as emperor of Japan? One decision could cause the Japanese people to rise up in a revolution and one decision could cause the deep war wounds to begin to heal and a devastated people to become part of the world community again.
This is a quiet movie that slowly reveals the difficult decisions the victor is faced with in winning World War II. When Washington, D.C. (ie. the President and Congress) removed Emperor Hirohito from the protection list after the war, General MacArthur was left with the decision of what to do with Hirohito. And Washington only gave him ten days to decide what Hirohito's fate should be.
Like any good supreme commander and general would do, MacArthur delegated that decision to General Bonner Fellers, under his command in post-war Japan, as he considered General Fellers an expert on Japan. General Fellers earned that distinction when he met and romanced Aya, a lovely Japanese girl studying in the U.S. before the war. Both were attending the same college. When Aya abruptly moved back to Japan, Fellers followed her to Japan to discover why she had left and why she had left without saying goodbye.
By this time Fellers was working for the American government in the Phillippines and with a hop and a skip he was in Japan searching for Aya. He discovered she was of noble birth and had returned to Japan when her father died. When he finally found her, teaching English at a Japanese school, she wanted nothing to do with him and not because she did not have feelings for him, but because it was looked down upon for her to have any kind of relationship with an American. That just was not acceptable for the nobility in Japan, especially when the U.S, and Japan were on the brink of war.
But, Fellers persisted in courting Aya and convinced her his feelings for her were genuine and sincere and she reciprocated. He stayed in Japan to be with Aya and to study the Japanese for a research paper he was doing on the psychology of the Japanese character. Through Aya and her extended family, he learned of the great devotion and loyalty the Japanese have for family members and also for their country and for their Emperor Hirohito. As Aya tells him, if you do not understand devotion, you do not understand the Japanese character.
Eventually, Aya's uncle, now head of the family since her father's death, does not permit the relationship between the two even though they truly love one another. He forces Feller to leave Aya and not to see her again. Heartbroken, he returns to America.
It is through flashbacks, while General Fellers is in Japan after the war, that we learn of his relationship with Aya. Of course, he wants to be reunited with Aya, and has his chauffeur and translator, a Japanese native, search for her. In the meantime, Fellers tries to see and interview as many Japanese generals and government officials as he can to determine what Hirohito's fate should be as he has to write a report recommending to MacArthur what decision he should make.
General Bonner Fellers is unusual because of his love and respect of the Japanese people he learned from Aya and his time before the war living in Japan. And, of course, MacArthur knows this and wants Fellers to make the recommendation because he understands the Japanese people the best. There is stiff opposition for pardoning Hirohito from Washington, the rest of MacArthur's staff, and the American people.
This is a movie that we know the ending right from the start. MacArthur's decision was that Hirohito would remain emperor of Japan and he did so until his death in 1989. But, watching Tommy Lee Jones' (MacArthur) and Matthew Fox's (Fellers) quiet, subtle acting in making this big decision that would affect the entire world, was a treat indeed. Neither was boisterous, garish, or over-acting in their portrayal. And, Jones, could have really gone overboard with the character of MacArthur. But, his portrayal of the Supreme Commander was wise, studied, and caring about the Japanese people, respecting them and their culture and customs and most of all in his respect and care of Emperor Hirohito.
Eriko Hatsuna (Aya) is the beautiful young Japanese actress that plays Fellers love interest in flashbacks during post-war Japan. She is shy, quiet, unassuming, and devoted to Fellers once her love for him blossoms. And he is devoted to her as he searches for her in post-war Japan.
Of course, Fellers understands the Japanese culture so well he prefers, in his after hours, to have his drink at the local Japanese bar with the Japanese rather than at the O Club (Officer's Club). He feels right at home with the Japanese even though they now resent Americans and he believes being around the Japanese will help him make a better decision. Fellers is an upstanding General and human being and even reports his own 'conflict of interest' to MacArthur right before MacArthur issues his decision. MacArthur, to his credit, overlooks this and makes the right decision for everyone involved.
What else I liked about the movie was the realistic portrayal of Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima after the devastating A-bombs that hit the cities. The portrayal of the sick and poor Japanese living in shanties and lean-to's among the ruble of what was left of their cities was heartbreaking to see.
Also, Fellers gets closure on his relationship with Aya, when he visits her uncle in post-war Japan and the uncle gives him a box of Aya's love notes and letters she had written but never mailed to him. Their devotion to one another is seen as Fellers eyes fill with tears and they stream down his face at her devotion to him in her letters. Fellers has come to fully understand Japanese devotion.
But, the highlight of the movie is the relationship between Fellers and Aya which is sincere, genuine, and sweet on both their parts when they were young and in school and young and in Japan before WWII. And, the lesson we learn is that two people from different cultures can come together in mutual love and respect for one another, no matter if those two cultures and countries are at war. And it is the understanding of the Japanese culture, their devotion and loyalty, that brings MacArthur to the most momentous decision he would make after the war.
The other highlight of the movie is the meeting between MacArthur and Hirohito in which both are polite and understanding of their cultural differences and yet accommodating of them at the same time.
Although the decision that Fellers and MacArthur make, to pardon Hirohito, is against popular opinion at the time, these two men stick to their strong beliefs and do what is unpopular but have the courage to do what is best for everyone involved: the Japanese and the rest of the world.
The characters in this film are well-acted by the actors that portray them, and that is the strength of the film. As MacArthur's staff seeks justice in post-war Japan, they come to realize that revenge is not justice - it is just revenge.
I highly recommend seeing this movie. It is a sleeper as it has not been advertised very much. It you want to see great examples of leadership and what it is, then see this movie. If you want to see leaders understanding the culture and mores of a vanquished nation, then see this movie. And if you want to see a lovely, heartwarming, and genuine love relationship that transcends nationalities and cultures, then see this movie. It is a true story all away around it.