Fans of “Party of Five” and “Lost” will welcome Matthew Fox in a leading romantic role in a feature film, but the movie “Emperor” is an exasperating film that exploits cultural imperialism while supporting antiquated notions of history.
The questions that should be asked in these more enlightened times aren’t addressed at all, but neatly sidestepped, mostly by completing forgetting the rampant racism present in the American forces.
Some people have complained about the white guy-Asian woman yellow fever romance. Others have complained about the complete exclusion of the Japanese Americans who made translation and interpreting possible for the U.S. military forces. Yet what sticks in my mind as most troubling is the notion that the movie shows what happened after the good guys won as if the good guys actually came into Japan without the shadow of shared guilt.
The film follows a real person, Brig. General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) as he tries to determine in 10 days if the emperor was guilty of war crimes. Fellers is under orders of the self-promoting General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones). In flashbacks we see why Fellers has come to love Japan. In 1932, he met a lovely Japanese exchange student, Aya (Eriko Hatsune) and they dated. He followed her to Japan, but the coming war separated them. Now he searches for her in the ruins of Tokyo and south of that city with the help of his trusty chauffeur, a Japanese national who just happens to speak English. This man conveniently is used to translate when Fellers must speak with Japanese prisoners.
As Fellers, Fox has an intelligent anxiety and an air of integrity. His chemistry with Hatsune is tender. Jones is properly bombastic and yet shrewd as MacArthur. Bombed out Tokyo is given frightening reality. The attention to detail is commendable in the sets and the romantically hazy and pastel colored past. Yet there are many problems with this based on reality story.
On a private level, the historical problem is that Fellers was married in 1925, meaning that if he was dating in the 1930s, he was committing adultery, something that I don’t believe the military allowed for officers who were also supposed to be gentlemen, but perhaps there’s a special unspoken clause for foreign, non-white women. In the movie, his wife isn’t mentioned, I can’t recall if he was wearing a wedding band and the topic of adultery isn’t brought up. Does literary license allow for slander? Perhaps Fellers wasn’t always faithful, but the movie might drill into impressionable brains that he wasn’t married and romantically longed for his lost love. Poor Mrs. Fellers is the forgotten woman.
Moreover, lest one think that the president and his cabinet were completely unreasonable, Fellers was given the more sensible time span of one month to determine Emperor Hirohito’s guilt. Why they couldn’t pace the film and give the expediency to 30-days is also troubling.
Yet the central question, the problem that lumbers into the movie theater like an orphaned elephant is the topic of race–not the cultural gulf that separates Fellers from Aya which the movie portrays as mostly the fault of the Japanese and their anti-American sentiments–race and racism in America, in France, in Canada and in Great Britain.
The year is 1945. America was still in the back-of-the-bus, colored people only drinking fountains and bathrooms in the Deep South; ghettoes and glass ceilings in the rest of the U.S.; and segregation in the Armed Forces, churches, dances and music. Marriage between races weren’t allowed in several states. So the historical question is: Did ethnic minorities really expect and get justice in the United States? Immigration acts (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, Immigration Act of 1924) had been enacted based on race and ethnicity.
If Asian Americans couldn’t expect justice in the United States, how could Asians in Asia expect justice from the U.S.? Japan had already been the on the short-end of treaties (unequal treaties included the Convention of Kanagawa, the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty, Ansei Treaties, Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Prussian-Japanese Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation). Japan wasn’t the only Asian nation subject to unequal treaties. Similar treaties were forced upon Korea (by Japan, the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, France, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark and China) and China (by Great Britain, United States, France, Russia, Prussia, Portugal, Japan, Italy, Spain, Austria-Hungary and Netherlands). After Japan had been opened to the world by the U.S. in a fit of Manifest Destiny, the Japanese had learned about imperialism from Great Britain and the United States.
How did these Western prejudices and accepted acts of discrimination play out after World War II? At the Nuremberg Trials no one was sentenced to death for waging an aggressive war. At the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the president of the tribunal, William Webb of Australia, was against the death penalty for waging aggressive war, observing that no Nuremberg defendant had been sentenced to death for that crime. He questioned if the Japanese defendants were being treated “with less consideration than the German accused.” Justice B. V. A. Röling of the Netherlands objected to the death penalty for non-military personnel and for anyone for crimes against peace.
Röling commented, “It was horrible that we went there for the purpose of vindicating the laws of war, and yet saw every day how the allies had violated them dreadfully . . . Tojo was right that in this respect Tokyo was victor’s justice only.” What Roling didn’t know is that MacArthur was suppressing information about biological warfare. MacArthur also suppressed information about rape during the Occupation.
There were questions about the judges. Could a judge who had been a P.O.W. really be an impartial judge? Could one who had investigated the treatment of prisoners by the Japanese be an impartial judge. However, no question about the qualification of the Indian judge: Justice Radhabinod Pal of India. He had prior experience in international law.
Pal’s dissenting opinion was long and controversial to the Americans. Pal had grown up with his country under the suppression of British colonialism and would have found none of the defendants, including the emperor, guilty. The reasons he gave were:
- Conspiracy to wage aggressive war was not considered an international crime in 1937.
- Western colonialism was not on the list of war crimes.
- The dropping of the atom bomb were not on the list of war crimes.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it starts out with black and white footage of the dropping of one of the atom bombs and footage of the destroyed city of Hiroshima. The movie hasn’t forgotten about the atom bombs except in term of questionable morality.
The issue of race is more easily hidden in a manner that is like putting a tent over the elephant in the room. The script excludes the presence of Japanese Americans in the U.S. and in Japan. No mention of Tokyo Rose. No mention of the many Japanese Americans who served as interpretors and translators for MacArthur and his officers. Indeed, the officers on MacArthur’s plane that flies into Tokyo at the beginning of the movie is filled with only white men. The office of the Supreme Command Headquarters is wonderfully realized and manned by white men. And then there’s that Japanese national chauffeur. If the American military didn’t trust American-born ethnic Japanese and imprisoned them in internment camps, if the military didn’t trust men of color to be mixed with their white counterparts and segregated the units in all cases except for their usage of Japanese American military intelligence services, why would they trust this Japanese national chauffeur whose wife had died in the World War II bombings?
In this movie, “Emperor,” the exclusion of the Japanese American soldiers and their contributions to the investigations and the running of the Tokyo war crimes trials, erases the need to address the conflicts that in part lead to the war. The inclusion of the uncomfortable question of Japanese American loyalty and the racism within the Allied Forces could have brought the interpretation of American history forward from the 1940s and 1950s, into the 1960s era of Civil Rights movement and into more recent decades of multiculturalism. The movie asks the wrong question. The question should not have been should the emperor be brought on trial, but why were the Americans asking this question at all.