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EMPEROR - a film review

Updated on March 22, 2013
Emperor Showa or Hirohito in dress uniform.
Emperor Showa or Hirohito in dress uniform. | Source
General Douglas MacArthur and Hirohito in a photo taken at their famous post-war meeting, portrayed in the film, 'Emperor'.
General Douglas MacArthur and Hirohito in a photo taken at their famous post-war meeting, portrayed in the film, 'Emperor'. | Source

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.


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    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      phdast7: Oh, yes, my goodness, this is right up your alley. WWII and all. I didn't know anything about this or even realized there was this big decision to make over Hirohito at that time. So, this was a very interesting film for me to see. I'm glad MacArthur did what he did with Hirohito. I think it helped to heal the wounds after the war. I don't think MacArthur was as bad as some have made him out to be.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Hi Suzette - Great review and it sounds like a great film. I definitely need to see it because knowledge of the Pacific Theater (and Japan in general) during WW II is one of me weakest teaching areas. Voted up and Sharing. Theresa

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      beingwell: Thanks for your comments! See the movie - it is a good one!

    • beingwell profile image


      6 years ago from Bangkok

      Wow! Excellent hub. Marvelous McArthur photo, too. Voted up and shared.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      Willmmerdreamer: Thanks so much for reading this and I'm glad it has inspired you to see the film. I highly recommend it!

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      Yes, Amy, do see this movie. As I said above it is a bit of history I knew nothing about. We know the ending as we watch the movie, but the wonderful thing about this movie is watching what these two men went through, especially Fellers, to come to their conclusion. Nothing is black and white in this story and we see the gray areas that had to be contended with. Good strong leaders do recognize this and see beyond what is right in front of them and can see down the road and realize what the greater good and truth is. Thank goodness these men were where they were at this time in history. I fear our 'leaders' today don't have the foresight these men did during and after WWII. I say 'leaders' with quotation marks because today, I don't feel we have leadership in this country. We have cry babies and representatives only concerned about themselves and their own elections and electability. I don't see anyone who is ready to make the tough decisions that need to be made to straighten out our economy and do what is in the best interest of our nation. I think we can learn much from men like MacArthur and Fellers. This is probably why the producers and director made this movie today. Examining how great men work and the issues they contend with should be teaching guides for our leaders today. But, I think it falls on blind eyes and deaf ears. I was really impressed with this movie and it is a shame it hasn't had more publicity. Thanks so much for your comments, Amy and I agree wholeheartedly with all you say.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      Thank you for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed this review. I highly recommend this movie. It is a bit of history I had no idea about until viewing this film.

    • Willsummerdreamer profile image

      Will English 

      6 years ago

      Great review, man. I think I wanna see this now.

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I will definitely put this on my list of "must see" movies, Suzette. Though your review includes the sadness that all wars leave behind, it sound like an emotionally intellectual film whose real power resides in the heart rather than bullets and bombs. Then and now, Suzette, the bloodshed and violence of war often creates an atmosphere of "them vs us", broadening the divide among cultures. Your review of this film leaves me with the feeling that the strongest leaders recognize and consider the truth in that all cultures feel pain, love, and loss, and thereby, we are all connected. Awesome observations and review of a 'must see' film.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this great review.


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