New film ‘Emperor’ depicts birth of U.S.-Japan peace

LOS ANGELES — Starring Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas McArthur, “Emperor” is a tale of a U.S. soldier tasked with investigating Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s role in World War II.

Before the film opened in the United States on March 8, the actors and producers spoke to Kyodo News about how it emphasizes the personal relationships that can shape history.

DISCUSSING ‘EMPEROR’ — A panel discussion on the U.S. film “Emperor” held at the University of California, Los Angeles, on March 4. The film premiered in the United States on March 8 and opens in Japan in July.  Kyodo News photo

DISCUSSING ‘EMPEROR’ — A panel discussion on the U.S. film “Emperor” held at the University of California, Los Angeles, on March 4. The film premiered in the United States on March 8 and opens in Japan in July.
Kyodo News photo

“I just felt deep inside that the innate purpose (of the film) was for harmony and for us to open up certain doors that weren’t open for a long time… we should look at it now so we can move forward,” producer Yoko Narahashi told Kyodo after a screening at the University of California, Los Angeles.

After the war, while leaders of other Allied countries wanted to see Hirohito go on trial for his involvement, Gen. McArthur thought that doing so would destabilize the country, possibly opening it to communism. His secretary, Bonner Fellers, who had studied Japan and loved the country even in the midst of war, led the effort to assert the emperor’s innocence.

Narahashi, who worked as a casting director on “The Last Samurai” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” saw in Fellers’ story a chance to make an international film of her own.

“Emperor” follows Fellers (played by Matthew Fox) as he investigates Hirohito while searching for his Japanese sweetheart, Aya (a fictional character played by Eriko Hatsune). Through his relationship with Aya and her uncle (played by Toshiyuki Nishida), Fellers comes to learn more about Japanese culture and values.

Fox, known for his role in the U.S. TV series “Lost,” said in an interview he enjoyed learning about the history, but that “the love story underneath” makes the film “really special and moving.”

For Actor Tommy Lee Jones, the movie was a chance to explore where “the two cultures meet.” “There is something to learn here about how these two cultures survived and how they came together,” said Jones in an interview. The actor said that as he studied for the role of McArthur, he began to realize how important the iconic general was to “the character of our lives today.”

“Imagine if he’d allowed the emperor to be executed, then you have to imagine the collapse of Japanese society… a perfect opening for Joseph Stalin and the Russian communists,” Jones said.

The actor has been interested in Japan since studying kabuki in his college days. For Jones, working with Takataro Kataoka, a kabuki actor who played Hirohito, was one of the highlights of making the film.
The film was shot almost entirely in New Zealand on sets recreating war-devastated Japan, with one brief scene filmed outside the Imperial Palace. Making a film about the former emperor in Japan would have been “difficult,” Narahashi said.

The film depicts not only Hirohito, Fellers, and McArthur, but men who stood trial for war crimes: imperial advisor Koichi Kido (played by Masato Ibu), wartime Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe (Masatoshi Nakamura), and Imperial Army Gen. Hideki Tojo (Shohei Hino).

According to prominent World War II historians John Dower and Herbert Bix, Fellers coordinated evidence to exonerate the emperor rather than really investigating his involvement in the war. The historians have written that while Hirohito was hardly blameless, MacArthur wanted to use the image of an emperor misused by militarists to gain sympathy among Japanese for the American occupation and reforms.

Narahashi chose to treat the subject with more ambiguity, reflecting her family’s experience of the emperor. The producer’s grandfather was Teizaburo Sekiya, one of Hirohito’s palace officials (played by Isao Natsuyagi in the film), and she grew up hearing stories about the imperial family from her mother and uncle.

“I don’t want to put down the historians. They are much more logical. You can’t say that with the imperial family. In all my work for the longest time, nothing is black and white. It’s not to say I am exonerating (Emperor Hirohito). But he did put an end to the war,” she said.

At a panel discussion after the UCLA screening, Eugene Nomura, the film’s Japanese co-producer said that while the film is not a strict historical account, as a drama it could interest people in the history.
“A lot of people don’t study this. It was a peaceful surrender, which we don’t see that often now. I think it is really important to think about it,” said Nomura.

The film has enjoyed modest success in the United States, grossing $2 million in its first 10 days at around 300 theaters. “Emperor” opens in Japanese theaters in July.

At the UCLA panel discussion, audience members responded with questions and comments. A woman in the audience said that for her, the film “only scratched the surface,” and hoped it would spark more discussion of the plight of minorities in Japan during the war.

The question also came up of how the film might play in Japan in the midst of renewed discussion over the country’s Constitution, a product of the U.S. occupation that prohibits the country from keeping a standing army. “There may be controversy, but I am ready for that. I thought it was meaningful enough to be able to take the plunge,” Narahashi said.

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