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Matthew Fox stars as Gen. Bonner Fellers in Peter Webber's EMPEROR. Photographer: Kirsty Griffin

Movie Review: Emperor

Matthew Fox (TV’s “Lost”) and Tommy Lee Jones star in “Emperor,” a gripping tale of love and honor forged between fierce enemies of war. SIDEWALKS’ Jeanne Powell has her review.


Matthew Fox stars as Gen. Bonner Fellers in Peter Webber’s EMPEROR. Photographer: Kirsty Griffin

Roadside Attractions

Rated PG-13
Run Time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Director: Peter Webber

Principal Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, Eriko Hatsune

Studio Synopsis:
A gripping tale of love and honor forged between fierce enemies of war, EMPEROR unfolds the story, inspired by true events, of the bold and secret moves that won the peace in the shadows of postwar Japan. The story of EMPEROR is based on the resonant, real events of 1945, when General MacArthur took control of a shell-shocked Japan on behalf of the U.S and Bonner Fellers worked covertly to investigate the Emperor’s fate while the future of the nation hung in the balance. Entwined with an against-the-odds romance, the story traverses the conflicting loyalties between heart and homeland, between revenge and justice, as the world rebuilds from the ruins of war.

Matthew Fox joins with Academy Award® winner Tommy Lee Jones, newcomer Eriko Hatsune and award-winning Japanese star Toshiyuki Nishida to bring to life the American occupation of Japan in the perilous and unpredictable days just after Emperor Hirohito’s World War II surrender. As General Douglas MacArthur (Jones) suddenly finds himself the de facto ruler of a foreign nation, he assigns an expert in Japanese culture – and psychological warfare – General Bonner Fellers (Fox), to covertly investigate the looming question hanging over the country: should the Japanese Emperor, worshiped by his people but accused of war crimes, be punished or saved? Caught between the high-wire political intrigue of his urgent mission and his own impassioned search for the mysterious school teacher (Hatsune) who first drew him to Japan, Fellers can be certain only that the tricky subterfuge about to play out will forever change the history of two nations and his heart.

[youtuber youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-Is8hvLPHk’]

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Peter Webber’s EMPEROR. Photographer: Kirsty Griffin

Jeanne’s Take:
“Emperor” is a thoughtful political thriller directed by Peter Webber, who also directed the highly praised “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (2003). Vera Blasi and David Klass wrote the screenplay based on the book, HIS MAJESTY’S SALVATION by Shiro Okamoto.

The film stars Tommy Lee Jones as general Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied powers in Japan after that nation surrendered in 1945, and Matthew Fox as brigadier general Bonner Fellers, military intelligence officer and a specialist in Japanese culture.

Eriko Hatsune is cast as Aya Shimada, an exchange student with whom Bonner Fellers falls in love when they are university students in the U.S. Toshiyuki Nishida is Aya’s uncle, General Kajima, whom Fellers meets when he follows Aya to Japan before the war. Masayoshi Haneda is Admiral Ibo Takahashi, who served the emperor in World War II but who retired from active duty in 1944; Fellers interviews him after the war. Takataro Kataoka is cast as Emperor Hirohito.

A horrific new weapon is used by the United States at the end of the war – atomic bombs are dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some say so the new American president (Truman) can impress and warn Joseph Stalin of the USSR. Ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Japan, coupled with the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs, bring about the surrender of Japan – unconditional except for the protection of the emperor.

But under pressure from American politicians back home, MacArthur now tells Bonner Fellers that he has ten days to investigate the culpability of the Emperor in planning the 1941 military attack on Pearl Harbor, a major naval base. War crimes trials are beginning in the Far East, and MacArthur wants to know what political fallout will occur if he puts the Emperor on trial along with high ranking Japanese officials – army generals, navy admirals, prime ministers, wartime foreign ministers, etc. Most well known of these men in the west is Tojo, Japanese premier or prime minister (depending on which source one is reading). The 55-count indictment against Japanese officials includes “crimes against humanity” and “waging aggressive war.”

This relatively short film (less than two hours) explores the complexity of Japanese culture, especially the way it represents to the U.S. in 1945, while raising questions still relevant today about global intervention and about which criminals go on trial after a war.


Eriko Hatsune in Peter Webber’s EMPEROR. Photographer: Kirsty Griffin

Bonner Fellers is an up and coming general, a protégé of MacArthur. He has a deep interest in Japanese culture. Whether the romance between him and university student Aya Shimada is fact or fiction, the device serves to show the stressful contrast in Fellers’ life: peaceful and happy moments in an interracial romance which is made so very difficult by the outbreak of war versus the daily struggle to retain composure and focus in a highly politicized command where ambitious officers compete for MacArthur’s attention and approval.

Fox plays Fellers as an officer willing to demand what he needs from MacArthur to perform an impossible task: decide if the emperor of Japan should go on trial for his life. Set up a command post, decide whom you need to interview and then struggle night and day to come up with miracles to interview high-ranking witnesses who don’t wish to be found and who don’t wish to be interviewed if they are found. The process is fascinating.

There is a stunning contrast between the MacArthur command post on a hill and shattered streets in ruins just outside the military base. At night general Fellers leaves the safety of the command post and is seen in Japanese bars and other nocturnal haunts without a bodyguard. No other western faces are in the vicinity. Sleep eludes him during these ten days as he plots and schemes to work a miracle.

Ten days to prepare and deliver a report which will decide the fate of an emperor. No pressure – only the president of the U.S. and the supreme Allied commander of the Pacific are waiting. MacArthur says he wants concrete proof of the emperor’s complicity in the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japanese conduct of World War II , not conjecture and not anecdotes. What is Fellers able to deliver when he cannot interview the emperor, and his own colleagues have no understanding of the culture?

MacArthur anticipates his eventual meeting with royalty, with a man who is both an emperor and a god. “What the hell do you say to a god?”

Matthew Fox starred in “Vantage Point,” a 2008 political thriller about presidential assassination. He is best known for a popular television series, “Lost.” Tommy Lee Jones plays the supreme Allied commander with a mixture of MacArthur-like traits and dialogue delivered a little too close to the style we know (and love) from “U.S. Marshalls” with Wesley Snipes (1998). He was memorable in “Lincoln,” “In the Valley of Elah,” and in “The Client.”

I enjoyed this film because it explores an area most Americans have not thought about, and because it brings to mind other occasions when American power has brought this country into contact with cultures it did not understand – Native American nations in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as Cuban and Filipino cultures in 1898.

We know the outcome of World War II in the Pacific – the emperor renounced his status as a god, and MacArthur helped to create a modern Japan. How it began is most interesting, and director Peter Webber tells his story well.

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