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Posted on Mar 27, 2013 in Books and Movies

Historical Hits and Misses in the Movie ‘Emperor’

By Mo Ludan

Emperor (2012, PG-13, 105 mins), directed by Peter Webber, starring Tommy Lee Jones (General of the Army Douglas MacArthur), Matthew Fox (General Bonner Fellers), Eriko Hatsune (Aya Shimada), Toshiyuki Nishida (General Kajima) and Takataro Kataoka (Japanese Emperor Hirohito).

While not perfect (and there are, to be sure, some troubling inconsistencies), Emperor succeeds in capturing the difficult dilemma faced by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. In late August 1945, he is the newly appointed Supreme Commander for Allied Powers (SCAP) charged with the responsibility for establishing and overseeing the occupation of defeated, war-ravaged Japan, at that time “teetering on the brink of total collapse.”

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MacArthur is also given the task of gathering enough evidence, under a tight 10-day deadline imposed by Washington, to prosecute Japanese Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal. President Harry S. Truman’s administration, as MacArthur has correctly surmised, is keen on seeing the Emperor tried, found guilty and hanged.

As MacArthur, actor Tommy Lee Jones exudes the confident air of an American icon that’s larger than life. Matthew Fox does a great job as the earnest young General Bonner Fellers (although in real life, Fellers, born in 1896, was 49 years old during the events this film portrays). Fellers is ordered to gather evidence that may determine not only the fate of an Emperor but that of a nation and the lives of millions.

Historically, Emperor has its hits and misses. The film correctly shows General MacArthur’s Tokyo office as sparse and devoid of luxury, from faded window curtains to plain wooden panels to a drawer-less desk. (See “General MacArthur’s Tokyo Hq” article/photo gallery at http://armchairgeneral.com/general-macarthurs-tokyo-hq.htm.)

On August 30, 1945, MacArthur arrives at Atsugi military base, near Yokohama, on the general’s personal plane, a Douglas C-54. But the film does not show his signature “BATAAN” that was proudly painted on the silvery plane’s nose. It also shows the incorrect US insignia on the plane (the one shown on the film plane was not adopted until 1948).

The film gets MacArthur’s “transport” correct, however, when the general is seen entering a vintage black Lincoln (check out the hood ornament).

Yet, when MacArthur arrives at his destination, the film cuts to the Dai-ichi Building in Tokyo instead of the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama, 46 miles away—the general did not move his headquarters to Dai-ichi until September 8, 1945). In real life, from his arrival at Atsugi, MacArthur’s car and entourage headed straight to his first “home” in Japan at Yokohama’s New Grand Hotel. (See “Yokohama’s New Grand Hotel: MacArthur’s First Home in Japan” article/photo gallery at http://armchairgeneral.com/yokohama%e2%80%99s-new-grand-hotel-macarthur%e2%80%99s-first-japanese-%e2%80%9chome%e2%80%9d.htm .)

Five Misleading Scenes in Emperor
There are five scenes where the film goes out of its way to portray MacArthur in an unflattering and insulting manner; yet, these are either misleading or lack “the rest of the story”:

(1) A lavish mansion, amidst the rubble of a bombed-out Tokyo, is shown as MacArthur’s private residence. Yet, the house was actually the former U.S. Ambassador’s residence. Emperor is silent on this historical fact, which permits the filmmaker to reinforce the image of MacArthur being obsessed with the amenities of luxury. The film therefore repeats the same canard that had been reported in 1942 at the outset of MacArthur’s New Guinea Campaign in the South West Pacific Area: it was claimed that the general built a “magnificent villa” atop a Port Moresby hill, but actual photographs have shown this as totally untrue.

(2) MacArthur is shown in the film lamenting the scarcity of food in devastated postwar Japan, then the camera pans to his dinner plate with two fresh eggs, cooked over easy, and a good-sized steak. Here’s the truth about MacArthur’s meal that night:

That evening [August 30, 1945] the 11th Airborne [Division] scoured Yokohama for eggs for MacArthur’s breakfast. The next morning, the General ate one egg instead of his customary two. When he learned that a nightlong search had yielded but a single egg, he realized the severity of the food shortage. Thereupon he issued an order that was contrary to the practice of conquering armies through history. Occupation troops were not to eat local food but only their [military] rations. It proved to be one of his most popular orders. (The East Magazine, Sept/Oct 2002, vol. 38, no. 3, Kosuga Manison Rappongi #200, Minato-ku, Tokyo).

(3) A scene is created for the film in which MacArthur poses for two staff photographers while pointing to a war map posted on the wall. This strange scene which does not propel the film’s plot in any way can only have one purpose: to reinforce once again the claim that MacArthur was obsessed with self-promotion. One may reasonably ask: what exactly is he supposed to be promoting this time—isn’t the war over?

(4) MacArthur is shown visibly disturbed by the tight, Washington-imposed 10-day deadline for gathering evidence against Emperor Hirohito, and angrily mutters “that man [Truman] is a lying bastard!” Profanity of any sort was totally uncharacteristic of MacArthur, both in public and private. And it is especially ironic that the film chose to invent dialogue of profanity directed at Truman—Truman is “on the record” as routinely using profanity to refer to MacArthur (such as “that Brass Hat SOB” and other profanity directed at the general), while there is no evidence whatsoever that MacArthur ever referred to Truman in the same vulgar language.

(5) A tag line at the end of the film, in which Emperor inexplicably tries to make a big deal of MacArthur’s “failed attempt” to run for U.S. presidency in 1948. One has to ask what this has to do with the film’s plot (other than to take another back-handed slap at the general). The move to nominate MacArthur actually grew out of a “grass roots” movement in America since, like “Ike,” MacArthur was a hugely popular American war hero. From his office in Tokyo 7,000 miles away, General MacArthur during the run up to the 1948 election had barely started the long process of transforming Japan into a democracy. Returning abruptly to the U.S. and campaigning across the country for GOP presidential nomination at this critical point in the occupation of Japan for which he was responsible seems uncharacteristic of a leader who never left a job unfinished.

Another tag line casually mentions the demotion of Fellers to the rank of colonel. However, the film fails to point out that Fellers’ demotion was part of Truman’s massive postwar downsizing of US military forces which included reducing in rank 212 generals (who held that rank as a “temporary” wartime promotion, not their “permanent” official rank on the active army list, which could be several grades below general rank). In 1948, Fellers (who retired in 1946) was actually reinstated as a brigadier general on the Army retired officer list.

Finally, the film is not clear what role General Shizuichi Tanaka had played in the attempted assault on the Emperor by die-hard junior military officers who were making a last-ditch attempt to prevent Japan’s surrender. The film simply shows him committing suicide. The Oxford-educated, Shakespearean scholar and former military commander of Japanese-occupied Philippines was an old acquaintance of MacArthur when both were posted in Washington earlier in their military careers.

CONCLUSION—Where Emperor Succeeds
Where I believe Emperor has scored solid points is in its attempt to make audiences realize and appreciate the impact of two disparate cultures on a horrific war. One example of the US-Japan cultural gap is depicted in a scene referring to Emperor Hirohito’s use of words in subtle shades of gray instead of straightforward black and white in order to announce Japan’s surrender without actually ever using the word “surrender” (Hirohito instead merely announces that Japan must “endure the unendurable”).

The much-maligned (by many film critics) love story of Fellers and the Japanese woman Aya Shimada, plodding as it is, does have its own calming energy that lightens the film’s otherwise intense dose of death, despair and devastation.

Finally, MacArthur’s accomplishment, as most historians would agree, in starting Japan on the path from feudal militarism toward modern democracy represents “a greater triumph than any the old warrior had won on the battlefield.” In driving home this point in history, Emperor deserves kudos.

About the Author
Mo Ludan lives in the Seattle, Washington area, is a longtime Armchair General subscriber, and has frequently contributed to the magazine. His web articles include his virtual tours of MacArthur’s Dai Ichi building Tokyo headquarters and Corregidor.

39 Comments

  1. Great article. I saw the film a few weeks ago at a local art theater and really enjoyed it.

    • We got to the theatre several minutes late, but I thought the car shown was a very rare ’42 Chrysler….or was I seeing things? My Dad had a ’46 that looked just like it except for the grill.

    • I enjoyed the movie Emperor very much. I do understand the hits and misses but from reading General Fellers’ bio I get the impression he met the Japanese Exchange student before attending USMA. Not in the 30’s like the movie suggests. But again, is a movie and not a history book. General MacArthur is splendidly brought back to like by Tommy Lee Jones, wow, even the photos, the pipe, excellent job! There are signs and subtle messages regarding cultural differences all over the movie. I am going to see it again. Did not like the remark on the general’s demotion by Eisenhower. Made it sound as if there was bad blood between them. Even if there was, the demotion was part of the readjustment of the army after the war. Over 200 generals, acting generals or with a temporary rank of general, were brought back to colonel. However, General Fellers was reinstated as Brigadier General when he retired.

    • Ditto. Fine film. To answer the critic’s ponder on why was McArthur promoting himself one only has to go to Wikipedia to read about his plans to run for President.

  2. Good vetting of “Emperor.”

    I’m especially glad you picked up on the script’s error in making MacArthur such a “potty mouth.” Totally out of character with what I have heard about MacArthur’s “Brigade of Cdets Commander” character.

    Movies have to simplify, so it is understandable that the movie takes as its central theme the request by Washington to get MacArthur’s recommendation on treatment of the emperor. But in reality, the historians will tell you that the decision had already been made—on the recommendation of the pre-war US ambassador in Tokyo, Joseph Grew. Grew knew that without the use of the emperor, the occupation might face guerilla warfare and utter chaos. By the time of the Japanese surrender, Soviet moves in central Europe had made it clear that if Japan was to be saved from at least partial occupation by the Soviets (Hokkaido?), chaos was not an option. (In two weeks after their entry into the war, the Soviets killed 300,000 or so Japanese in Manchuria and Korea and took prisoners as slave labor to Siberia—many died and others were kept until the mid-fifties. (That figure of 300,000, incidentally, is about the same as the total of the deaths caused by American fire bombing and atom blasts.)

    My guess is that the movie’s Washington demand for MacArthur’s views was designed to give the Truman Administration a political fig leaf by getting the war here in Tokyo to approve their policy. What might have been up for grabs was a decision on whether to force Hirohito to abdicate in favor of the Crown Prince, who was in his early teens. But MacArthur either was impressed with Hirohito or (more likely) decided he would rather work with this guy than a regency of unknown orientation.

    There was an aspect of the Fellers story that obviously couldn’t be fitted into the movie. He had gone to Earlham College in Indiana, a very good Quaker college. He clearly was not a practicing Quaker, but he had contacts in the Quaker educational establishment (and the chair of the wartime planning group in Washington was a distinguished Quaker educator, Professor Hugh Borton). Fellers implanted a whole group of Quakers in the Palace staff in educational roles, most notably Elizabeth Vining as the present Emperor’s English tutor—“Windows for the Crown Prince.” The effects of Fellers’s actions have lingered on for many years in the quiet, sensible, and modest persona of the Heisei Emperor.

  3. Well done! Carefully balanced, informative and engaging review. I enjoyed the film, warts and all …

  4. We saw the movie tonight and enjoyed it very much, as once again we disagreed with all the negative reviews. We have come to expect that however.

  5. After you see the humane consideration the USA showed towards a former enemy, and after re-building similarly devastated Germany without asking for reparations of ANY sort, I wonder how and why our so-called President calls us “Imperialistic?” Maybe Barry Hussein doesnt know the meaning of the word.

    • Or maybe the President was thinking about our illegal invasion of Iraq without any reason or provocation.

      • Calvin, Imperialism carries with it the unspoken goal of “self-enrichment” at the expense of the dominated country. We’ve spent a fortune on a country full of snakes thinking they MUST appreciate Freedom, not understanding the Arab/Muslim mindset

      • Mitch
        Invading a country you know nothing about and expecting them to be just like you… Well that must a definition of imperialism that wasn’t in your dictionary? There were so many overtones and unexplained oversights in the invasion of Iraq that one just gets the feeling it was a belligerent country invading just ” because it could”.

    • This is not a snooty retort: Negative on reparations. German finally paid the US back in 1995 for WWII. The final payment. The movie should have used some history in it’s making. Fellers was an absolute toad as an Intel officer. As for MacArthur I recommend reading Max Hastings “Retribution” as to Dugout Doug’s professionalism. He never commanded anything more than a CORPS command in WWII. Max 4 divisions. The fact that he was still receiving money from the Republic Of the Philippine’s was a total disgrace. They should have pulled out Wainwright instead of him. He was also the same MacArthur that killed and maimed US WWI veterans in DC in the 30’s when they demanded their pay bonus from 1918. Most were in poverty but hey Doug is a great guy

  6. What the above article saw in MacArthur’s “Thick Steak” I did not see. I rented the film so I cant re-view that scene, but i believe it was an egg with a very THIN slice of ham.

    • You rented the film, so you can’t review that scene?? Call me crazy, but usually when you rent a movie, you CAN actually review, rewind, review again, rewind again, re-review and repeat as often as you wish. LoL. Just sayin.

      • Yes Jim. I rented that film from Redbox and obviously returned it, or yes, I could have re-viewed it. Duh…

    • Yes, I think it was SPAM , may have to re-rent again!

    • While I thought it was Spam and one egg.

  7. Mitch, you’re correct. It was a slice of ham. I’m glad someone else was watching the film.

    • SPAM, which makes the Generals comments sarcastic.

  8. Methinks the film is beyond the question of whether or not MacArthur had a “thin slice of ham” or a “thick steak,” The future of postwar Japan and millions of people did not depend on this point. Also, the reviewer did not seem to have the luxury of dissecting “Emperor” on a DVD by freezing it frame by frame but instead saw it at a theater, like most everybody else did (the review was posted on the pre-DVD release date of March 27, 2013).

    Here’s the more salient issue, in my view. The movie review refers its readers to a certain link, where you will find footnote #8 re subject scene. One may find it quite revealing. It tells the reader what really happened and may, in fact, lead one to appreciate the larger message of what MacArthur did that fateful day.

    http://armchairgeneral.com/historical-hits-and-misses-in-the-movie-emperor.htm#hide

    • Eh… Where is this link that you speak of??? I see NO links for any “footnote #8”. Only links for pics. One may want to assist us far less intelligent beings so that one may prove that one may be supreme. ;)

      • See paragraph 7 of above text. Click on the link at the end of the paragraph as I just did and you will see “Yokohama’s New Grand Hotel – MacArthur’s First Japanese Home.” Scroll down to Footnote #8 is at the end of the article, which reads (as it says in above review):

        ” 8) The East Magazine, Sept/Oct 2002, vol. 38, no. 3. Kasuga Mansion Roppongi #200, Minato-ku, Tokyo: The hotel prepared a lunch of walleye, mackerel, and cucumber garnished with vinegar. The General ate a single bite and put down his knife and fork. His subordinates wanted to sample his evening meal before he ate. He would not permit it. The hotel staff were grateful for the gesture of trust. It was an expression of trust in the hotel and in the Japanese nation, but it was also a sign of MacArthur’s hunger. He had skipped the earlier meal, and by evening was too hungry to share his hamburger with anyone for any reason.

        “That evening the 11th Airborne Division scoured Yokohama for eggs for MacArthur’s breakfast. The next morning, the General ate one egg instead of his customary two. When he learned that a nightlong search had yielded but a single egg, he realized the severity of the food shortage. Thereupon he issued an order that was contrary to the practice of conquering armies throughout history: Occupation troops were not to eat local food but only their rations. It proved to be one of his most popular orders.”

        There, I hope that helps.

  9. You mention the love story between Fellers and Shimada only in passing, but to me, this is what the entire movie was really about. But did such a relationship ever really exist? Given what you say about Feller’s real age, the time line is awkward. I would like to know more about this.

  10. I just finished watching the Emperor on blu-ray, then a few minutes later ran across this article. I felt it necessary to correct a couple things in this article just because I thought the author, “Mo” would like a taste of his own medicine in regards to nit-picking little details… In the scene where MacAurthur is on the phone with the president, he says (and I quote verbatim) “And thank you, sir. (slams phone down) You lying son of a bitch.”.  In the dinner scene, MacArthur states that they won’t be dining on steak because the country is starving and some spiel about moral authority. He then states “Ah, it looks as if our dinner is ready.” (pans to plate of food which consists of a thin slice of ham with sauce drizzled on top, 2 slices of carrots, 3 small chunks of potatoes and 4 green beans.) Then says “Courage, men.” Then everybody has a lol moment.  I rather enjoyed the movie a lot.  I especially enjoyed the love interest story within the story.  The actress (Erika Hatsune) that played the part of Aya is VERY beautiful and VERY real and natural!  Nothing fake about her acting at all.  I did not like the Major Gen Richter!  He was a Major pain in the ass and apparently had a hard on for getting Fellers up shit creek!  Tommy Lee Jones was excellent as always as well as Matthew Fox! 

  11. Clearly you are a fan of MacArthur and let that fact ruffle the feathers of your review. I feel like defending the filmmakers a bit by taking up several of your points.
    1) I think the filmmakers were probably more concerned with recreating the scene accurately. The meeting did take place in “a lavish mansion, amidst the rubble of a bombed-out Tokyo.” Historic photos of the meeting depict the same reality. Are they claiming that MacArthur had an affinity for fine things? And would such a claim necessarily be wrong if he was indeed living in such a fine dwelling?
    2) commentor Jim Stone does everything I would wish to with this.
    3) This scene does propel the plot. It comes after someone has pointed out to Fellers that MacArthur is simply self promoting and says something about noticing all the pictures he’s taking. This scene is showing Fellers watching this picture taking going on and gives a hint of him reflecting on MacArthur and the words of warning he was given.
    5) It is ridiculous to say “Emperor inexplicably tries to make a big deal of MacArthur’s “failed attempt” to run for U.S. presidency in 1948.” It is not inexplicable. The film features the idea that at least some of his military men saw this as a goal for him and as a reason Fellers should be cautious with MacArthur. It makes perfect sense to say that he did run (which he truthfully did).

    I would say that if anyone has an agenda regarding MacArthur it would be the author of this article and his clear fandom of the general more than the filmmakers.

  12. I agree with another comment that the author, in #2 above, clearly misinterpreted the scene dealing with the meal. In it, MacArthur clearly states that they would not be having steak, and he gave the reason why. And the plate of food held, I’m fairly certain, fried spam.

    • Yes it was. SPAM. I think that was too subtle for some people to see. I did notice that though, and that’s whyat made the Generals comments “sarcastic”

  13. Well presented. The anti-American or self-loathing propagandized in the film and clearly pointed out in your review seems de rigueur in today’s films rather than acknowledging American exceptionalism.

    One unmentioned slight was the bombing raid comparison, “childrens’ shadows on the wall”, and negative narration, willfully ignoring the weeks of warning the Japanese were given before the atomic bomb strikes.

  14. The opening seen is also incorrect. It shows the bomb “Fat Man” being loaded onto the B-29, then show the arial photo of Hiroshima. “Little Boy” was the one dropped on Hiroshima, of which only one of those types were ever built.

  15. Very good comments although I am unsure that the film was anti McArthur as much as you point out.

    “American Caesar”, is great additional biography of McArthur

  16. I think the film’s depiction of MacArthur fairly reflects his rather complex character. On the one hand he was a gifted leader and a very thoughtful diplomat – in many regards he was a visionary, especially in his approach to rebuilding Japan. At the same time, it is hard to argue that he was not also a shameless self-promoter and something of a ham (the corn cob pipe and non-standard uniform, not to mention the carefully choreographed press photos were a bit cringe-worthy, even at the time I suspect). He was both of these people simultaneously, which is what part of what makes him fascinating as an historical figure, but also what made him frustrating to work with for other military figures not to mention Roosevelt and Truman. I don’t think the movie is pro or anti-MacArthur. It portrays him as thoughtful, pragmatic, and personally charming in his own way, but also as a bit conceited and politically ambitious. He was all of the above.

  17. I enjoyed the movie but I must admit there was some political jabs that would have served a better purpose on the cutting room floor. Agree the love story romp brought some civility back to the story line. The cultural differences explained a lot of indifference and misunderstanding between our cultures. But never the less, MacArthur did more to bring peace to the world rather than revenge. Maybe The Emperor was guilty of war crimes against humanity, does it make a difference in the outcome of Japan? I think it’s most significant. If it was wrong can we go back and right that wrong. Today it’s about Benghazi fresh in our minds, maybe Hillary is right maybe it doesn’t make a difference… in 60 years from now. What if Hitler was found still alive or Osama was not really shot in the head. How do all these “what ifs” pose a difference? What if Abortion of the unwanted was legal in 1960 and you were a mother living in a bad situation in Hawaii? The Conspiracy stories cut both ways. Great Movie, one I’ll buy.

  18. How many of you making comments about what hPpened in post war Japan were there? How many of you served under MacAuthor? Unless you were there, can you really comment on what it was really like. Even historians write history with their bias.

  19. I asked my father, an Army Air Corps pilot, on his death bed if he had to choose MacArthur or Patton, which would he want to lead his army? By 2008 both of these were out of favor with historians, but I knew Dad revered them. He said, “You need both. You need the great strategist and you need the consummate tactician.” He also loved Curtis LeMay. Dad was still in training for the 20th Air Force at the end of the war, so was saved by the bomb. Tommy Lee Jone’s swearing as MacArthur grated as did the epilogue about Fellers demotion stated in personal terms, but otherwise the movie seemed to capture the challenge faced by America’s Proconsul in deciding the fate of the Emperor. MacArthur’s strategic vision is illustrated by his management of the occupation.

    • I salute your dad for his service to our country.
      His assessment of MacArthur as strategist and Patton as tactician is spot-on! for further reading, I would like to recommend Dr. Arthur Herman’s magisterial biography of “Douglas MacArthur American Warrior” (NY:Random House, 2016). Dr. Herman focuses on MacArthur’s unparalleled strategic vision and geopolitical grasp.

      You may also want to check out James P. Duffy’s excellent “War At The End Of The World” (NY: New American Library/ Random House, 2016). Duffy underscores MacArthur’s handling of the war in New Guinea with brilliant strategic and tactical moves reminiscent of Napoleon – and Patton on the latter.

      Both books are available at Amazon with excellent reviews by Dr. Henry Kissinger, Jon Meacham (Pulitzer Prize), H.W. Brands (Pulitzer Prize finalist – Reagan: A Life), WSJ, NY Journal of Books, Dallas Morning News, Criterion and many others. (I chimed in with my own customer review of Dr. Herman’s book submitted on July 22, 2016. I gave his book 5 solid stars.)

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