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'Emperor' stirs deep emotions in Japan and U.S.

The film, about the dilemma Gen. Douglas MacArthur faced regarding Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II, delves into a painful history.

March 07, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Tommy Lee Jonesstars as Gen. Douglas MacArthur in "Emperor."
Tommy Lee Jonesstars as Gen. Douglas MacArthur in "Emperor." (Palm Springs Film Festval )

Emotions have been running high at screenings of the historical drama "Emperor."

The Japanese American coproduction, which opens Friday, revolves around the dilemma Gen. Douglas MacArthur faced as he tried to restore order in post-World War II Japan: Should the country's divine leader, Emperor Hirohito, stand trial and face certain death on war crimes charges?

When the producers screened "Emperor" recently in Japan, producer Gary Foster said, many men were in tears as they left the theater.

"It was almost a cathartic moment," he said.

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"It brings out this raw emotion," said Foster, whose credits include "Sleepless in Seattle" and "The Soloist." "Some of the men were veterans [of World War II], some were children of veterans. I am not an expert on Japan, but that society has buried deep down in their souls a lot of complex feelings about the war."

"Japan hasn't really discussed any of this," said Japanese-born producer Eugene Nomura ("Tomato No Shizuku"). "A lot of it has been hidden. I am 40 and people in Japan, in my age range and younger, we don't know so much about this history."

Foster and Nomura have also witnessed emotional responses at screenings in the United States.

"Depending on your perspective, if you are a veteran soldier or a Japanese American or an ex-pat Japanese citizen, it's been fascinating because suddenly this passion comes up in the Q&A's about their point of view on the end of the war," Foster said.

"I love it," he added. "That's what the intent of the movie is. I think the conversation was frozen for 68 years and now it's thawing."

The fact that MacArthur didn't put Hirohito on trial rankled Americans in 1945.

"Most people wanted to see him put on trial and executed," Foster said. "MacArthur and his team had a long-reaching vision. Japan has become an important ally of the United States."

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Filmed in New Zealand and on the actual grounds of the Imperial Palace in Japan, "Emperor" stars Tommy Lee Jones as MacArthur, who was given the task by President Truman of heading the occupational forces in Japan after the country surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945.

Matthew Fox plays Bonner Fellers, an American general with a deep understanding of Japanese culture who helped MacArthur make the decision that Hirohito, known to his subjects as "emperor of heaven," was basically a pawn of the militarists who has gained control of the country after he came to power in 1926.

Hirohito eventually renounced his divinity, and his role as emperor became more ceremonial. He died in 1989. Since his death, some historians have come to believe that he might not be as blameless as was once thought.

"Emperor" had a strong personal connection to the mother-son producing team of Yoko Narahashi and Nomura. Teizaburo Sekiya, Nomura's great-grandfather, had a major role in Hirohito's Ministry of the Interior and was instrumental in setting up the historic meeting between MacArthur and Hirohito.

Narahashi and Nomura gained more insight into these events after meeting Fellers' granddaughters and going to the Stanford University library to read Fellers' letters and diaries, which are deposited there.

David Klass ("Kiss the Girls") wrote the first script, which introduces a love story in flashback between Fellers and a Japanese schoolteacher named Aya, whom he met when she was going to school in the United States.

"It's somewhat fictional," said Foster. "He did meet a Japanese woman who was studying at college in the United States. We inferred from his diaries and writings that they had a special friendship. In fact, he took her to dinner once with MacArthur."

Writer Vera Blasi ("Woman on Top") was brought in to focus more on the political story and, as she put it, "reshape the love story so it would serve the political story."

Though set nearly 70 years ago, Blasi said "Emperor" is a very modern story "because we are now dealing with the aftermath of a couple of wars. You have to do the greater good. But to figure out what the greater good is, you also have to learn the culture that is defeated; otherwise you make the wrong decision."

susan.king@latimes.com

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