It was Teddy Roosevelt who said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” What’s remarkable about Douglas MacArthur’s presence as Supreme Allied Commander in post-World War II Japan was not that he carried a big stick. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that much was obvious. What was remarkable was that, at least in relation to treating deferentially the defeated but still-beloved Emperor Hirohito, MacArthur was willing to speak softly.
“Emperor” is about the dark, terrible aftermath of that horrific worldwide war, when devastated Japan literally lay in ruins. People were starving, hunting for scraps among the rubble. The defeated soldiers, steeped in a culture of death before dishonor, had to carry the shame of surrender, as well as the travail of the destruction of their homeland. The occupying Americans weren’t brutal, really. The War had been plenty enough of that. But there they were, the arrogant victors, in their bustling efficiency and maddening informality, foreigners stalking their once-sacred sites. Not only was their land defiled, their whole way of life was destroyed.
General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) was an American soldier more sensitive than most to the tradition-steeped culture of Japan. Not only had he lived in Japan in 1940, before Pearl Harbor, he’d also had a Japanese girlfriend, Aya (Eriko Hatsune) whom he’d met while in college in the early 1930’s, when she was an exchange student. (Actually, there’s something about the timing that doesn’t quite add up here; it’s unlikely that a young man rises from college student to general in 8 years, even if there was a war on. The real Bonner Fellers actually fought in World War One.)
General Fellers, finding himself stationed in a foreign country, apparently took the time and trouble to learn something about the history and the language and the warrior culture there. Then, during the War, finding himself in charge of scheduling the American bombing runs, he deliberately tried to steer away from the school where he believed Aya was still teaching. As it turned out, it didn’t matter; their relationship was doomed from the start. But in “Emperor,” General Fellers spends a lot of time mooning about this young romance of his, and an equal amount of time wandering the wasted streets alone and occasionally getting into silly bar fights, as a kind of cathartic personal reparation.
Meanwhile, he’s charged with the task of discovering whether the Emperor ought to be indicted for war crimes, for ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbor and starting the War in the first place. (Well, it’s more complicated than that, of course: Japanese troops were fighting in Manchuria all during the 1930’s, and Japan had effectively been at war all during that time, including a militaristic Pacific expansion that went undeterred until they decided to bomb Hawaii). General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) personally orders Fellers to make this critical evaluation because he knows the territory better than anyone. But Fellers finds that the byzantine labyrinth of military, political, and ideological figures surrounding the emperor makes it almost impossible to determine who, precisely, made the fateful decision. And it’s incontrovertible that the Emperor himself, in a rare public broadcast, formally asked his countrymen to lay down their arms, an act of reluctant submission which likely saved millions of lives on both sides. Fellers dutifully reports this to his superior, but MacArthur is the kind of man who wants to actually meet the Emperor, shake his hand, look him in the eye, and make his own judgment. This was not easily arranged, even in postwar Japan. But MacArthur, to his credit, handled it with as much sensitivity as he could muster, considering his own inherent vanity and narcissism, and in so doing probably helped prevent a disintegrating civil revolt. Now the reconstruction of Japan could begin in earnest.
Tommy Lee Jones is a rare disappointment here; something about a bad accent and a propensity to pose instead of lead. Matthew Fox is actually more convincing, but they both are serving a more important point, anyway: to have made the difficult right decision, in the face of mounting opposition, in a precarious and complex and precipitous time. That’s an historical moment worth savoring.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas