The year is 1945, Japan has surrendered, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are in ruins after the atomic bombing. General Douglas Macarthur (Tommy Lee Jones) is in Tokyo with the declared aim of reconstructing the country. Creating endless photo opportunities, he is also grooming himself at every opportunity for future candidature for the office of president of the United States.
He summons General Bonner Fellers for an extremely delicate and onerous task, to ascertain the guilt or innocence of Emperor Hirohito in the prosecution of Japan’s war effort. Determined to see that justice is done - to satisfy White House demands, in other words - Macarthur gives Fellers ten days to come up with evidence implicating or exonerating Hirohito.
Thus, Fellers must crack Japan’s intricate web of power, with its codes of sacrifice and duty, to come up with answers. “(The Chrysanthumum throne is a mystery, even unto itself,” is one of the more memorable lines in David Klaas and Vera Blasi’s screenplay, based on Shiro Okamto’s novel, His Majesty’s Salvation.)
Who authorised the bombing of Pearl Harbour? Should the emperor be tried for war crimes? Can he sidestep warrior guilt? These are the pertinent questions to which the occupying forces have no answers.
But Fellers is better equipped than most to find out, as he has a particular respect and affection for Japan. During his college years, he fell in love with Aiya, an ‘unspoken-for’ Japanese girl who was studying English in the USA.
She leaves suddenly and inexplicably when her father becomes ill. War between both countries looms, the US mounts an oil embargo against Japan and her father’s last message to his daughter is never to marry an American.
The relationship should have ended there, but Fellers is determined to track Aiya down. Director Peter Webber skilfully interweaves the public and the private, Fellers’ conscientious sense of duty as a soldier and his abiding love for the young, demure teacher. A decent job of work, if vaguely workman-like, Emperor stays intelligent and faithful to a plausible reality throughout, for which we must be thankful.