Hirohito sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne through the Japanese invasion of China, the attack on Pearl Harbor and all through World War II. But at the end of the war, there were two emperors in Tokyo. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied powers in the Pacific, ruled Japan as a potentate, overseeing reforms that turned the country away from militarism and feudalism and setting the stage for Japan’s ascent as an economic superpower.
“Emperor” is about both men — about MacArthur deciding whether to prosecute Hirohito as a warmonger and war criminal. Was the “God Emperor” merely a passive observer to his country’s crimes against humanity? Or did he encourage it?
Tommy Lee Jones gives us a saltier version of the image-obsessed MacArthur, a cagey, guarded and cunning man who wanted to cover himself if he decided to absolve the emperor of blame, but brave enough to know that “a show of absolute fearlessness” is what will impress the armed millions of Japanese most.
With a tiny contingent of troops, he struts into Japan and watches lines of soldiers turn their backs on him as he passes.
“They avert their gaze from the emperor, too,” his aide (Matthew Fox) explains.
“I know,” MacArthur puffs.
That aide, Gen. Bonner Fellers, does the heavy lifting in this story and the movie. He has 10 days to investigate and decide Hirohito’s fate. And as he is portrayed in the movie, Fellers is a man with a secret conflict of interest. The love of his life, whom he visited there before the war, was Japanese.
Fellers puts his Japanese translator on the task of finding Aya (Eriko Hatsune, glimpsed in flashback) amid the ruins of a burned and starving Japan. Then Fellers rounds up suspected war criminals before they can commit ritual suicide.