Through a Glass Darkly: ‘Emperor’ insightful history look

Judging by the small crowd at the opening of “Emperor,” the movie may not hang around long in Baton Rouge.

That’s a shame. It’s worth seeing for a couple of reasons.

“Emperor” is a film about an important, but little-known period in American and world history.

Americans know about Pearl Harbor.

World War II buffs can name the major battles of the war in the Pacific.

The world still debates the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For most people, however, the knowledge of that period ends with an armada of American ships in Tokyo Bay and the signing of a peace treaty with Japan.

Where that understanding ends, “Emperor” begins.

The opening of the movie shows Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas MacArthur on a plane preparing to land in Tokyo. He’s there to wrap up the details of war and to begin the rebuilding of a country that the United States amazingly turned from enemy into ally.

As soon as Jones barks a couple of tight lines, slips on sunglasses and jams a pipe between his teeth, the audience buys him as a haughty, gruff MacArthur.

At that point, viewers might expect a movie about MacArthur, but what Jones gives them is another great supporting actor role like he did in “Lincoln.”

The movie isn’t about
MacArthur or even about Emperor Hirohito, despite the film’s name.

The diminutive Hirohito remains a shrouded giant throughout much of the picture as he was in the war. He doesn’t make an appearance until the last few scenes.

The real main character is Gen. Bonner Fellers, a man worthy of several footnotes in history. Perhaps the most important of those was the role MacArthur gave him to investigate Hirohito and determine whether the emperor was simply a ceremonial leader of Japan or a war criminal.

Politics, hatred, loyalty, ambition and murky evidence get stirred into that investigative cauldron.

With effective flashbacks, the movie also becomes an intriguing love story. Much of it may have been Hollywood invention, but Fellers’ relationship with a Japanese exchange student does have some factual basis.

Whatever the real story, it provides a much-needed subplot to this historical drama.

Even so, action-movie fans might find it slow, but for those who love movies crafted around history, “Emperor” is an interesting perspective of world-changing events that occurred after the signing of the treaty with Japan.

The movie leaves viewers with a bag of questions that even the history of the period doesn’t tie into neat bundles of answers.

Despite that, most viewers will leave with an enhanced knowledge of the occupation of Japan, an insightful portrait of MacArthur and a heightened respect for Tommy Lee Jones.

Advocate Florida Parishes bureau chief Bob Anderson welcomes comments by email to banderson@the
advocate.com.