The Movie – ‘Emperor’

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I went to see the movie ‘Emperor.’

It is a fictionalized account of real-life events in the first year of the US Occupation of Japan, where there was an investigation on the Emperor of Japan and the question of accusing the emperor as a War Criminal.

The movie does not get into the overall politics, history, or larger events surrounding the bombings or surrender or the administration of the occupation, but focuses on General Bonner Fellers (played by Matthew Fox) who was hired by Commanding General MacArthur (played by Tommy Lee Jones) to be the chief investigator of the fact-finding mission to determine if the US War Crimes Tribunal had cause to charge Japan’s Emperor Hirohito of War Crimes.

Rather than get into the particulars of the movie, the overall impression I came away with were that bigger questions should have been addressed in the movie, in order to give it more depth.  However, the movie does an interesting and effective job of bringing up uneven positions of authority, racial prejudice, secrecy within the Occupation’s tasks and who knew or did not know certain things, and interracial marriage.  It’s done in small spaces, nothing grandiose.

The underlying liberalism of the main characters, in their diversity of personalities, plays out against a semi-main character who is eager to condemn the emperor of Japan and displays his racism against the Japanese openly.  This is a typical depiction of racism in these scenarios, where it is viewed as a ‘bad guy’ thing, while Matthew Fox’s character is the ‘good guy’ in ethical dilemmas. This is the typical depiction.  There was no room, really to really critique the occupation in this movie, unless one studied and knew other facts.  There were also many good things the Occupation did (like allowing women to vote in Japan), as well.  It is truly complex.

It was not the movie’s job to make a million statements and give a history.  In fact, in the political climate these days, any critique of occupation, seriously, would not have been allowed, really.  Or perhaps they would not find the sponsors to fund the movie.  The movie must be palatable to American patriotism, liberalism, and present problems as individual dilemmas.  Any social examination on a large scale would mean educating people on the history of the war and its development, social relations between many groups, etc. etc. and the role that Europe and the US played all across the Pacific from colonization to today.  This dilemma is ongoing.  This movie covered one tiny subject in a host of explosive historical power plays.

In addition, the scene in the bar in a burnt-out Japan, where young Japanese men chide and bully Fellers, brings up a different kind of picture of the so-called ‘peaceful’ occupation of Japan after the war–which is the most often quoted description of that Occupation.

In Japan, and among many WWII veterans that I have emailed with, and through many articles I have read, it seems there is heated debate about the Occupation after people have seen the movie.  I think that heated debate is healthy.  Many silent things are sure to surface.

There is much pain, violence, and issues of victory and defeat and globalization that are at the heart of these discussions. History, which is written by the victors–in this case, the US, has two or three main versions.  On the Japanese side, there is usually one variation–written by those who worked with the Occupation elite and the new government of Japan.  These included the right-wing war-mongers of Japanese nationalist parties who were let out of prisons and given high positions in Japanese government (one became a prime minister).   The US handled all of this through the Korean War.

The Zainichi Koreans, as well as Koreans in the Peninsula, were first elated when the Japanese lost the war, because of Japan’s brutal policies in colonizing and ruling Korea.  This elation was short-lived as the US Occupation ordered the same administration to stay in place in Korea.  Zainichi Koreans continued to be oppressed structurally and socially, in Japan.

Not to exclude the other social issues–such as those which concern me–the children of the US soldiers and their mothers, who were left to fend for themselves in Japan.  After a brutal war, where 66 of your major cities have been bombed to the ground (yes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the only destruction of Japan in the war), children of the former enemy were not looked upon with love.

But these issues, among so many others, were not in the movie.  I did not expect it.  Movies cannot cover everything.  Nothing can cover everything.  This is only a movie.

For a snippet, it was not a bad movie.  Pretty decent acting.  Special effects were well-done, depicting postwar Tokyo in its devastation, and the very arrogant-seeming American white people running around Japan, doing as they want.  This was pretty much the way it was, the way I remember it as a child.

I wish my mother were still here, to perhaps see the movie together.  But she probably would’ve said ‘no.’  She would hardly ever want to talk of those times, and she never enjoyed anything depicting Japan before, during or after the war.

I am glad I saw this movie.  I just wish others were more interested in these parts of history.

Perhaps some of you will rent the DVD.

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