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Friday, 08 March 2013 00:00

'Emperor' interrogates post-WWII Japan

'Emperor' interrogates post-WWII Japan
Written by Diane Carson
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In 1945, the end of World War II, General Douglas MacArthur headed the occupation force charged with guiding Japan's transition to peace. Among his critical decisions as Supreme Commander, MacArthur had to decide if Emperor Hirohito bore responsibility for the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent military activities. If he did, Hirohito would be tried for war crimes.

In the film "Emperor" and in real life, to research and recommend prosecution or not, MacArthur appoints Japanese expert General Bonner Fellows, giving him 10 days to render his judgment. The difficulty of getting access to documents and individuals proves monumental, as director Peter Webber details. Compellingly, in the course of the investigation, "Emperor" explores and clarifies the values and ideas underpinning Japanese culture, though several stereotypical moments intrude.

The inquiry into Emperor Hirohito's status, weighing the desire for retribution against justice, and MacArthur's need to balance his judgment against his own political ambitions (he's considering running for President) make this an intriguing problem. Unfortunately, a major subplot involves Fellows' college-days love of a young Japanese exchange student, but his seeking her now in a devastated Tokyo is mostly a distraction, romantic Hollywood fare. Moreover, according to director Webber in a Q&A at the 2013 Palm Springs International Film Festival (where I first saw this film and heard Webber speak), it's partially fabricated, as is the 10-day window. Webber acknowledged taking poetic license to add tension to Fellows' limited-time to reach a recommendation. Honestly, there's already sufficient detail and intrigue in the post-WWII setting, and the inquiry into Hirohito's actions carries the plot along quite well.

During the Palm Springs discussion session, Webber also explained that in his extensive research in the U.S. and Japan for "Emperor," he found that history books in Japan included sparse information on the period, because, as Webber put it, "a lot of shame" is still associated with WWII. As a result, young Japanese don't know or write much about it. Of course, a wealth of information waits for anyone wanting to research now through the Internet. On another historical note, Webber explained that Eisenhower did not like Fellows, saying, "They never got along." Factored into their conflict, during the war, many officers moved up the ranks quickly, becoming what were called "Brevet Officers."

Though he isn't the lead actor, Tommy Lee Jones infuses the film with energy, giving a magnificent performance as MacArthur. Jones gets him just right--the arrogance and swagger, as MacArthur himself calls it, combined with a savvy understanding of the heady task. As Fellows, Matthew Fox lacks the complexity of Jones but carries the major share of the story adequately. Across the board, the actors in Japanese roles are superb, especially Eriko Hatsune in the thankless role of the romantic interest Aya.

Technically, the production design is impressive. In fact, "Emperor" became only the third film since WWII allowed to shoot in the palace grounds. (The first time occurred at the conclusion of the war, the second upon the death of the Emperor.) Other scenes shot over two months in New Zealand showcase Stuart Dryburgh's superb cinematography, probably best known from "The Piano" and "The Portrait of a Lady." Chris Plummer's editing also deserves recognition for keeping the story flowing and clear even as it relies on flashbacks and cross-cutting between stories. A bit too Hollywood, "Emperor" also provides provocative ideas. Primarily in English with some Japanese with English subtitles.

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