Review of EMPEROR, Directed by Peter Webber
Depending on your level of interest in WWII’s Pacific theater, you will have heard of the post-surrender dilemma: should the United States place Emperor Hirohito on trial for war crimes? To do so would satisfy the populations of the West, but it would also throw Japan into turmoil with the resulting popular uprisings and a disintegration of social and political institutions. If you know your history, the ending of this film won’t be surprising. Emperor Hirohito is left untouched and in subsequent decades (not in the film) is rehabilitated to the point where most older Americans remember him principally for his visit to Disneyland in 1975. General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), the man tasked with investigating the Emperor, concludes his mission saying we won’t know Hirohito’s guilt even after a thousand years, but we do know that without his decision to surrender blood would still be flowing.
Popular history tells the tale of a weak emperor that succumbs to the wishes of Japanese militarists in his council, culminating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film EMPEROR is thankfully accurate in not proliferating this narrative, instead leaving the evidence inconclusive while justifying the Japanese Emperor’s non-appearance before a war tribunal on an “innocent until proven guilty” platform. More than that, Emperor Hirohito might be praised for accepting unconditional surrender and ending the war quickly. The audience sees a dramatization of how the Emperor bravely calls upon the military to stand down and not resist the U.S. occupation. When General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) meets the Emperor in the closing scenes, Hirohito is humble and forward-thinking. EMPEROR is clearly trying to paint Hirohito in a good light, while attempting to balance that with historical accuracy.
But will we in fact never know the truth of Hirohito’s role in WWII, even should a thousand years pass? As a friend of mine commented, it’s odd that a man who can order the military establishment to surrender and have that command absolutely obeyed would be incapable of opposing the start of the conflict to begin with. But we’re not left with mere speculation. After Hirohito died in 1989, many archival documents that shed new light on the Emperor’s role in the start and conduct of the war were made available to scholars.
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan is a book that fills this lacuna of scholarship. Winning the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2001, Herbert Bix’s biography (written on the basis of these new documents) showed us a Japanese Emperor inspired by the martial spirit and imperialism of his grandfather Meiji and who took a personal interest in his role as commander-in-chief. Instead of a symbolic figurehead or something akin to our modern constitutional monarchies in Europe, Hirohito was a charismatic leader that dabbled in grand strategizing and colluded with his generals. Having read the book several years ago, I can’t provide a good synopsis, but it has an impressive array of evidence from journals, memoirs, and meeting minutes.
My response to EMPEROR as a self-styled intellectual is thus rather mixed. It doesn’t make any historical errors because people at the time really didn’t know what to make of Hirohito’s role. General Bonner Fellers might really have found no conclusive evidence—which is likely, when we remember the devotion of the Emperor’s coterie to protect his throne at all costs. But the film ends implicitly expunging Hirohito from all guilt, not mentioning any of the new evidence that has arisen in the past two decades.
In one of the closing scenes, MacArthur jibes that he’s never met an emperor before, let alone a god. There are a handful of references in EMPEROR to Hirohito’s divine status. But this mystery shrouding Hirohito is quickly dissolved when MacArthur looks him directly in the eyes (which you’re not supposed to do), offers his hand (you’re not supposed to touch the emperor), and takes a photo with him (another no-no). This great and mighty emperor is just a mortal, just like MacArthur.
The Japanese Emperor, considered a divine being by many at the time, was humbled like all men. Most are humbled as they face suffering, but all are humbled when they reach the grave. As the life stories of the historical characters are summed up at the end of the film, it notes that Hirohito renounced his divinity. A true God would never make mistakes, such as Hirohito did in his controversial role in WWII. A true God would never have to renounce anything. And all who consider themselves gods will one day confess that Jesus is Lord, for he alone will be exalted.