We then move into the main theme of the film which consists of General Fellers meeting with key Japanese officials, always after considerable resistance, attempting to determine the guilt or the innocence of the Emperor always to be met with no real answers to his satisfaction but then being sent to meet with someone else and the process begins again. Mixed in with this are numerous flashback scenes to his romance with Aya who he met in college. After returning home unexpectedly, Fellers meets her again in Japan just before the war where he is writing a paper on the mindset of the Japanese soldier. Aya introduces him to her uncle General Kajima who tells him that if Japan fights the United States, the Japanese will win because they follow the divine will of the Emperor. Aside from these occasional flashbacks on the odd drive through the country by Fellers in his efforts to locate Aya, what we get is a series of interviews between Fellers and Japanese officials that really result in no answers at all for his questions. It makes for a rather stale film at times, helped in no small part by the fact that we all know how it is going to end. We know the Emperor was not deposed and executed and that the Japanese monarchy continues to reign. So, something more is needed to make for an interesting movie, some new aspect or fresh look at things and, unfortunately, this is just not delivered.
“Emperor” largely re-treads old ground rather than taking the opportunity to delve into issues that, even today, remain unaddressed. Why, for example, should anyone in Japan have been willing to trust the Americans to mete out justice when even in the United States there was no justice for American citizens? This was the same country that had put Japanese-Americans in internment camps, that had laws prohibiting immigration from East Asia, which still had racial segregation in place. Given that, why should anyone in Japan have expected justice or been prepared to trust the Americans at all? Unfortunately, the issue is not addressed. Nor, just as sadly, is the entire issue of the war crimes trials. That could have made for a very thought-provoking film. General Tojo, for example, has a brief appearance (non-speaking but powerful nonetheless) and this was a man whose life was saved by the Americans only so he could be executed later on the charge of “waging an aggressive war” in spite of the fact that there was no law against such a thing in 1937. And, if the law is to be applied retroactively (as it was); why were no charges filed against the Soviet Union for invading the Baltic states, Finland, Poland, China or Mongolia? Why were they and Great Britain not charged for having invaded neutral Persia? This was a missed opportunity to really challenge the audience to think about their own assumptions but, alas, it was not taken. The closest we came was when Fellers interviewed Prince Konoe who asks him, rather pointedly, if it was wrong for Japan to invade China, why was it not wrong for the British or the Portuguese? If it was wrong for Japan to invade the Philippines, Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia why was it not wrong for the Americans, French, British and Dutch who had done so first? All we get is a petulant Fellers saying he did not come for a history lesson, yet, a history lesson is exactly what the filmmakers seem to be trying to do but they fail to actually teach us anything that most do not already know.
Was it good? It would probably be better to say that it wasn’t bad. The actors performed well even if some did have no depth to them, the visuals were good but it fails to really stand out as it has nothing new to offer and seemed to ignore major issues in preference for trivial ones. Those interested in the period or the subject matter will give it a chance, those who are not will skip it and they really will not be missing much.