Art & Culture

I’m a sucker for films based on historical stories of major importance and this one ticks just about all my boxes. The story deals with the immediate aftermath of the end of the war in Japan in 1945, when McArthur had to decide what to do with Hirohito.

Immediately, you can see the double meaning of the title. Hirohito was and had been Emperor of Japan before and during the war. He was ultimately responsible for Japan going to war (by attacking Pearl harbor) and the way that his armies conducted themselves during the fighting. But now he was emperor in name only, since the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Far East, General Douglas McArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) has the power of life and death over Hirohito, and in effect, rules Japan more comprehensively then his enemy ever did,

It would be easy to think of this as a Tommy Lee Jones movie, but it’s not. The central character is General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), who is given the poisoned chalice of a job of deciding whether or not Hirohito was guilty of starting the war and therefore whether he should be tried and executed. Public opinion (and therefore the politicians) back home in The States, want revenge on Japan, and Hirohito will do nicely for starters. But the consequences of executing someone who is regarded as semi divine by his own people are unfathomable, so Fellers has to make the right call – within 10 days.

The reason that McArthur has chosen him over more senior generals is that he knows that Fellers loves and understands Japan better than most Americans. In order to explain and contextualise this affinity, we are shown a love affair Fellers had with a Japanese girl before the war, which is woven into the more compelling narrative of the pursuit of justice in the face of obstruction by former high ranking Japanese officers and politicians. Although in my eyes the love story is of less interest, it does widen the potential audience for the film, and leavens the investigation with an element of humanity.

I’ve never seen Fox in a film before (he made his name in Lost and other TV series), and, now 46 years old, he does a remarkable job of holding the film together. He exudes calm authority and gravitas in a way that few American actors of his age can manage. You can readily believe that he commands men and earns their respect. Alongside him, Jones provides the necessary ballast of a credible McArthur, who was making some of the most crucial decisions of his or any soldier’s life. The fact that Germany and Japan have both achieved unprecedented levels of democratic participation and economic stability and success is not down to chance. In both countries, the US military instigated programmes designed to heal and mend, not destroy and avenge. We should be grateful for that far sightedness, and, as director Peter Webber said before the screening (OK, it was a World Premiere), it would be nice if politicians today would learn their lessons from the past.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

    Content supplied by the excellent Front Row Films website check the site and join up for many more reviews and general all-round film goodness.