Divinity Doth Hedge a King
“The force from which the sun draws its power loosed against” the Empire of the Rising Sun: “Little Boy” loaded onto the Enola Gay, the awesome mushroom cloud seen from that B-29 Superfortress, the unprecedented broadcast, the winning of the shooting war, open Peter Webber’s Emperor. All ninety-eight minutes but these few b&w archival frames deal with the winning of the peace.
Suggested by events told her by Interior Ministry grandfather Teizaburo Sekiya -- and great-grandfather of co-producer Eugene Nomura and now played by Isao Natsuyagi – co-producer Yoko Narahashi brought the conception to scriptwriters Davis Klass and then Vera Blasi. These facts, inaugurating the rebuilding from the ground up of devastated Japan, are intercalated with an imagined story of a forbidden trans-Pacific cross-cultural love which is not sufficiently brought to warm screen life.
The “inspired by true events” begins with commander of Allied powers General Douglas MacArthur’s (Tommy Lee Jones) arrival in a capital not difficult to movie-portray because not much was left of it or its people after firebombings -- “100,000 people incinerated in a single air raid.” Establishing and then maintaining control required balancing justice with revenge, separating whom to forgive or leave alone from who on the losing side deserved punishment.
The most politically charged decision involved Emperor Hirohito, hitherto unassailable “son of heaven” divinity in the two-millennia-old culture. Trying the forty-four-year-old was nearly unthinkable; hanging him alongside military and diplomatic figures risked three-and-a-half-million uneasily demobilized troops returning to the colors to lead national rebellion.
Jones is paunchy for the slender supreme commander who likely harbored presidential ambitions not to be realized, as end-titles humorously remark. He relies on acting charisma more than the corncob pipe, no-nonsense khakis and “scrambled-eggs” cap insignia to enhance his character’s blunt talk and common sense when serving as efficient nation-rebuilder and in effect –ruler from the Missouri surrender until 1951.
Instancing pressure from angry politicians and public back home, the film allows him ten days in which to weigh evidence of war crimes guilt on the part of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Staff specialist Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) is tasked with secret investigating and reporting back with recommendations.
The real-life Bonner wrote about visiting an unnamed “friend in Japan,” which never-clarified reference became the spur for a totally imagined love interest, a major thread in the film and unfortunately a weaker one. Thus was born Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), the foreign student whom -- in idyllic flashbacks, era-colorful compared to dun 1945 -- Bonner loved at an Indiana denominational college but who abruptly returned to a Japan in war mode. In additional flashbacks, Bonner tracks her down as a teacher, gets her love to overcome the country’s cultural resistance to Westerners, and continues his research on the psychology of its soldiers but is then sent away by the woman’s tradition-minded Uncle Kajima (Toshiyuki Nishida).
Not fleshed out, this proclaimed “epic love story” is here to explain stiff Bonner’s empathy with her nation and desire to grow in understanding it. Helped more than initially appreciated by assigned factotum-chauffeur Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda), the officer interviews, or attempts to, military and political wartime leaders and refuses to be sabotaged by vengeance-bent Major General Richter (Colin May).
The allotted period winds down, and a crucial last-minute revelation is word-of-mouth unverifiable, so wise MacArthur takes matters into his own hands. Whether the meeting truly occurred as depicted or not, Kabuki actor’s son Takataro Kataoko is effective in his bare minutes as Hirohito, “symbol of the state and the unity of the people.”
The viewpoint is American, though the former enemy’s sensibilities and suffering are not slighted. Resigned diplomat of conscience Fumimaro Konoe (Masatoshi Nakamura) bitterly notes that imperial racism, brutality and economic expansion were “simply following your [Western] example.”
(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated “PG-13” by MPAA.)