Mar 072013

Emperor, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox, examines the American occupation of Japan following the Japanese surrender in 1945. There has not been a major film about General Douglas MacArthur since Inchon (1981), which very few people have actually seen. Focusing on the ten-year period between the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during WWII and his dismissal by President Harry Truman during the Korean War in 1951, the 1977 biopic MacArthur was the only film that dealt with his re-engineering of Japan, probably the greatest accomplishment of his life.

Douglas MacArthur (January 26, 1880-April 5, 1964) was a controversial American general. Driven by a limitless ambition, his military career took off during WWI, and he had risen to chief of staff by 1930, but public criticism of the brutal eviction of the Bonus Marchers, WWI veterans camped out in Washington, cost him a second term. Retiring from the U.S. Army in 1937, he was recalled to active duty in July 1941 when war with Japan seemed inevitable. Achieving numerous victories in the Pacific, he seemed equally concerned with his public image and the defeat of the Japanese. Following the Japanese surrender, MacArthur was appointed American viceroy, and implemented sweeping changes in Japanese society, economy and politics. Taking command of the American response when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, an amphibious landing at Inchon ensured victory, but he was caught unprepared for a massive Chinese intervention. After repeatedly defying President Harry Truman, he was relieved of command in 1951.

The story has a great deal of potential. Japan underwent drastic social and economic changes during the five years MacArthur served as viceroy. Preoccupied with the Soviet threat and post-war Europe, the American government left MacArthur alone. Between 1945 and 1950, MacArthur quite literally transformed Japanese society, demolishing the powerful corporations and huge landed estates that had played key roles in Japan’s path of conquest. Most important, he introduced women’s rights into a society that had treated women as second-class citizens. Having experienced massive trauma, the Japanese needed someone to tell them how to recover, and MacArthur was born to play the role of benevolent dictator. When MacArthur was dismissed by Truman, the roads were lined with Japanese saying goodbye, genuinely sad to see him go.

Rarely has one individual had so much power over a former enemy, but it appears that the script will focus on the debate over whether or not to try Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal. It was a complicated issue since Hirohito was viewed by the Allied nations as sharing equal responsibility for the war with General Tojo, the prime minister of Japan during the war. Although the emperor eventually met with MacArthur and avoided trial as a war criminal, the actual process of the investigation has never been fully examined. Despite countless movies and miniseries on WWII, most recently HBO’s The Pacific (2010), Hollywood has spent little time on the immediate aftermath of the war with Japan, unlike the star-studded Judgment at Nuremberg, which appeared more than fifty years ago. Enough time has passed that an impartial look at the Japanese equivalent of the trials of Nuremberg should be possible.

  • E.

    It is a good thing that you commented on this movie, because I would have never known that it had existed. However, it looks terrible. You are right when you say that there are not many movies on this period. The best one would be Hiroshima mon amour (1959), although french.

    • historyonfilm

      It does look terrible. Tommy Lee Jones appears to be playing Tommy Lee Jones, and it appears that the script stresses action over actually exploring the emperor’s role in the war. Still, take what you can get.