Hollywood Looks At Pivotal Moment In Postwar Japan

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Kirsty Griffin – © 2012 Fellers Film, LLC

Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas MacArthur in "Emperor"

TOKYO – What with historical and territorial disputes with its neighbors and a rightward tilt in government, this might not seem the best time for a big-budget Hollywood production to come along and examine whether Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito, should have been hanged as a war criminal rather than enlisted in the effort to rebuild the shattered country.

But, no problem. “Emperor” is sure to be a box office hit here.

The movie stars Academy Award-winner Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was charged with deciding Hirohito’s fate in the frantic weeks following Japan’s surrender in World War II. Jones is the star of enormously popular television ads in Japan, so viewers are likely to forgive him no matter what he decides. (The ads are for canned coffee, by the way.)

The movie also has a sub-plot featuring a handsome American officer searching for his long-lost Japanese girlfriend. You can guess where that one fits on the historical accuracy charts, but it helps take the edge off.  “Emperor” opens in the United States on Friday, and in July in Japan.

In truth, Japan has struggled for decades with the issue of war guilt. More than two-dozen senior officials were hanged or imprisoned as “Class A” war criminals while MacArthur was Japan’s de facto ruler.  Thousands of others were jailed on lesser charges.

Hirohito was emperor and head of state throughout the war years, but MacArthur and the Truman administration feared that if he were charged or forced to abdicate, the country would collapse in anarchy. After fighting a war on two fronts, America had neither the money, manpower nor energy to manage a starving and restive country of 100 million people.

Barely six weeks after Japan’s surrender, MacArthur’s close aide and Japan expert, Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers, produced a legal brief that helped solve the problem. Fellers argued that Hirohito had not exercised free will in signing the declaration of war; had lacked “knowledge of the true states of affairs”; and had risked his life by attempting to effect the surrender.

After that, according to historian John Dower, MacArthur showed “no interest in seriously investigating Hirohito’s actual role in the war undertaken in his name.” Hirohito was now the good guy, while Japan had been driven to war by “gangster militarists.”

(Fellers, by the way, bears little resemblance to heartthrob Matthew Fox, who plays him in the film. And Bonners had more than just 10 days to make his findings, as commanded by Jones’ MacArthur. And there’s no record that Bonners had a Japanese girlfriend, although he did have a cousin who was married to a Japanese diplomat. For what that’s worth.)

No definitive public accounting of Hirohito’s role was ever undertaken. Since his death in 1989, public opinion has remained largely ambivalent, says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, at Temple University, in Tokyo.

“People don’t think much about it, really, ” says Dujarric. “People on the left probably see him as a war criminal. People on the right probably see him as a great man. And everyone else — in between. “

Period pieces like Clint Eastwood’s “Flags or Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and even Tom Cruise’s fanciful “Last Samurai” have drawn large audiences here.  “Emperor” seems likely to do the same.

“The Japanese audience will turn out in big numbers for a Hollywood historical drama set here,” says Mark Schilling, senior film critic for the Japan Times and a longtime resident.  “There’s no longer a big controversy about Hirohito’s war responsibility, since the man himself died a quarter of a century ago. And many of those who cared strongly about his role in the war and its lead-up — including the soldiers who once pledged their lives to him — have also passed from the scene.”

Hirohito was stripped of power at the end of the war, but the imperial family retains a particular place in Japanese society. The emperor’s birthday is a national holiday, and thousands turn out in the January cold to wish him well. The visit by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to the Tohoku region following the March 11 disaster was considered a major event in the national recovery process.

Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak sparked a sharp backlash last summer when he suggested that Akihito, now 79, should apologize for the excesses of Japan’s colonial rule, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. The Japanese government suggested that Lee himself should apologize for the effrontery; Lee instead claimed he was misquoted.

If there is a towering figure of the post-war period, it would be MacArthur himself. He served as Supreme Commander Allied Powers from September 1945 to April 1951, and oversaw momentous change. Under his watch, a new Constitution was written, the Diet and Cabinet were strengthened, land and labor laws were reformed and women were given the right to vote.

Thousands lined up to view MacArthur’s carefully preserved office near the Imperial Palace during a rare public opening last year.

“MacArthur was very important to Japan’s recovery,” says John Mock, visiting professor of anthropology at Temple University in Tokyo. “In terms of managing day-to-day affairs, he didn’t have to do a lot. His job was to be a figurehead and he did that very, very well. He was this august, distant figure — almost imperial-like — and that is exactly what the Japanese needed.”

Which would seem to be more than enough for a good movie.

“The basics are in place for this to be a successful film,” says Schilling “How successful depends on whether it appeals to people who want entertainment, not a history lesson.”