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Movie Review: Emperor
Rochelle Kopp
Mar 17, 2013 08:55 PM

I first heard about this movie as a result of one of the oddest media buys possible -- a full page ad in the Bay Area Japanese language weekly BaySpo.  Amidst the usual ads for travel and gift items, a big photo of MacArthur! Wonder what the Japanese readership thought about it. Have to admit, it did succeed in getting my attention.  Then when I saw a glowing review by Peter Grili, the President of the Japan Society of Boston, knew I had to check the movie out.  If you are interested in seeing it, I suggest that you do so quickly, as there were only 3 other couples in the theater when we saw it last night, and with only 2 stars on the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes it's not likely to be in theaters very long. Despite some problems that I mention below, I think it's worth seeing for anyone interested in Japan.

The movie takes place immediately after Japan's WWII surrender.  MacArthur must decide whether to hang Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal or to spare him, and asks one of his key generals, Bonner Fellers, to investigate and make a recommendation. This involves tracking down key figures in the wartime regime, who may or may not be cooperative. 

A brave topic choice for a Hollywood movie, but unfortunately the screenwriters decided that they needed to Hollywood-ize it by adding a love story between Fellers and a Japanese girl named Aya. At the time in reality Fellers was nearly 50 and married, but apparently he did have a "special friendship" with a Japanese woman he had met while she was attending college in the United States.  This is expanded in the movie into a major subplot, but other than the fact that the actress playing the Japanese girl, Eriko Hatsune, is beautiful and looks particularly lovely in the period clothes and hairstyles, there's not much going on in this romance.  The New York Times put it best when it said "In the time-honored tradition of East-West movie romances, Fellers and Aya have little to say to each other. Pained looks of thwarted desire, tears and desperate clinches do not a character or a relationship make."  The romance does however create the excuse for bringing in the character of Aya's uncle, a Japanese general, who adds a lot to the film.

Other than the boring romance, my other major quibble with the movie is that Fellers is pegged as a "Japan expert."  The real-life Fellers was nothing of the sort, and the movie version isn't either.  Just because you have a Japanese girlfriend and know how to say dozo yoroshiku does not make one a Japan expert! No real Japan expert would keep his shoes on to step up into a Japanese teahouse, fail to understand the importance of a tanka poem, or think he is going to get anywhere with Imperial guards by bossing them around.  Sorry, guess this is a sensitive point for me but had to mention it!

The best part of the movie for me was the main story, and all the characters involved other than Fellers.  Tommy Lee Jones was absolutely fantastic as Douglas MacArthur -- completely brought him to life and true to everything I have ever read about him. Kabuki actor Takataro Kataoka does a terrific job as Emperor Hirohito (reminding me of another great emperor portrayal in a western film by a Kabuki actor, Shichinosuke Nakamura as the Meiji Emperor in Last Samurai). The Japanese actors who play the various Japanese officials that Fellers meets with were all excellent too.  Fellers' loyal Japanese interpreter was also a good role, and he subtly saves the day on more than one occasion by interpreting not just the words but culturally.

I was also very impressed with the excellent job that the filmmakers did with recreating the appearance and atmosphere of the times. From the silver plane taking MacArthur to Japan, to the golden ceiling of a room where Fellers meets an Imperial Household official, the visual details were all spot on.  The buildings, from traditional Japanese homes to the western structures taken over by the Occupation forces, were lovingly crafted.  The depiction of a Tokyo flattened after the air raids matched what I had seen in photos and descriptions, but surpassed them in impact.  And the style of interaction and way of speaking and dressing of all the Japanese characters felt just right.  What history buff can resist the chance to step into a carefully re-created immediate postwar Japan, and have the chance to peek in at the historical meeting between MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito (where the above photo was taken)?  That certainly made the movie worthwhile for me.

Emperor is coming out in Japan in July, and I'm very curious to hear what the Japanese reaction will be.  In the meantime, perhaps some of the Japanese I know here in Bay Area will have seen that same ad in BaySpo and can tell me what they thought of it.

And one final comment.  As I was watching the painstakingly reconstructed images of Japan under the first days of the Occupation, I was reminded of another dramatic but little-known story that happened at that time. It's the story of Beate Sirota Gordon, who was the only woman on the team that wrote Japan's postwar constitution, and who passed away recently.  Her story is recounted in the book The Only Woman in the Room (Japanese version 1945 nen no Christmas), which I highly recommend.  Sirota was a true Japan expert, having grown up there after her father took a teaching position there.  The shaping of the Japanese constitution, and how Sirota persuaded the Japanese officials to include equal rights for women, is a fascinating tale.  And rather than the made-up story of Fellers searching for his Japanese girlfriend amid the ruins, there was the true story of Sirota searching for her parents, who had remained in Japan during the war and she did not know if they were dead or alive. Appropriate for Hollywood, Gordon was beautiful (Rachel Weisz or Marie Cotillard might be a good choice to play her). And apparently there was a real romance too, as Sirota eventually married Lieutenant Joseph Gordon, who was another of the interpreters in the Occupation headquarters and also was present for the negotiations on the constitution.  Sometimes I wonder why Hollywood makes things up, when there is so much good fodder in real life.  I'd love to see a movie about Beate Sirota Gordon, produced with the same high production values as Emperor.  Hollywood, are you listening?

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