These two movies, one from Japan, one from the US, tell overlapping stories about the end of WWII, so I thought I’d review them together. Both are available on Netflix, and both are well worth your time if you’re interested in WWII.
Emperor in August
The story begins on August 9, 1945, after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The Japanese Cabinet meets to decide whether to surrender to the Americans. Unbelievably, they deadlock, and Emperor Hirohito casts the deciding vote to end the war. In order to make the decision more palatable to the public, he decides to record a message telling the Japanese to lay down their arms.
A group of military officers, unsatisfied with this turn of events, tries to engineer a coup. Well aware of the propaganda effect of the Emperor’s speech, they try to find it before it can be broadcast. That effort, and the coup, fail.
Even though you know the ending, the film is surprisingly gripping. The failure of the coup was a near thing, ultimately resting on the decision of one senior military officer with no reputation for moderation. The leaders of Japan’s government knew the war was lost, but wanted to avoid the fate of Germany, which had surrendered a few months earlier and had already been carved into bits. Should they trust the Americans, who said they would preserve the position of the Emperor? The struggles of Japanese diplomats trying to decide whether the Emperor’s power being “subject to” that of the American military authority meant “subordinate to” or “dependent on” will be familiar to any student of a foreign language.
The movie has some interesting period detail. The Emperor’s radio broadcast was pre-recorded but, since tape decks hadn’t yet been invented, they actually had to cut a record. The efforts of the imperial household staff and the employees of the national radio station to safeguard the record until it could be broadcast are unexpectedly poignant.
This film requires close attention, since some of the characters are referred to by both by their names and their titles. And, at 2 1/2 hours, it’s about 20 minutes too long. But it’s a fascinating look at a little-known aspect of the end of the war.
This American film, although it was made independently before the Japanese one, kind of picks up where the other film leaves off. MacArthur arrives in Japan and is told by Truman he has to make a decision about whether to arrest Hirohito. Maybe the Japanese shouldn’t have trusted us after all. MacArthur asks a member of his staff, Bonnar Fellers, who has some experience with Japan, to see what he kind find out about Hirohito’s responsibility for starting the war. Fellers isn’t able to get much resolution on that question, but he does find out about the deadlocked Cabinet meeting and the coup attempt.
Fellers ultimately concludes that, whatever Hirohito’s role beginning the war (neither film takes a position on this), he had a decisive role in ending it. And he could play a vital role in the successful rebuilding of the country. MacArthur accepted Fellers’ conclusions (although there is some suggestion that he had already made up his mind in that direction).
Matthew Fox is somewhat tedious in the title role, although the rest of the mostly Japanese cast is pretty good. Tommy Lee Jones gives an unexpectedly restrained performance as MacArthur.
We justly remember our rebuilding of Japan as one of America’s finest hours. But this film reminds us that the way things worked out, given the amount of hostility in the US towards the Japanese at that point, was no sure thing.
One of the the other generals on MacArthur’s staff tried to discredit Fellers by pointing out that he had a Japanese girlfriend. (Fellers did have such a female friend, although the nature of their relationship remains unclear.) In the movie, Fellers supposedly changed targets to protect his friend, which as far as I can tell is a complete invention. It’s almost as though the writers felt the modern American audience wouldn’t understand how the mere allegation of a relationship with a Japanese woman might have been enough, in 1945, to discredit someone. That transition in the American perception of Japan, from horrible foe to respected friend, in a few short decades is a miracle of anti-racism — a victory we don’t celebrate enough.