By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The producers of “Emperor,” a historical drama now playing in theaters nationwide, attended a recent screening in Little Tokyo to talk about why they made the film.
Set during the U.S. occupation of Japan, the story begins with Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) ordering Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) to launch an investigation to determine whether Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) should be tried as a war criminal or allowed to remain as the country’s symbolic leader. Sparing the emperor would go against American public opinion, but executing him would cause open revolt and make Japan impossible to govern.
A free screening at the Aratani Theatre on March 3 was preceded by a statement from Deputy Consul General Masahiro Suga, who said that the movie “doesn’t describe … war heroes. It describes, based upon historical facts, the process and especially the first step of rebuilding friendship again by former enemies.
“One my missions as deputy consul general of Japan in Los Angeles is to promote mutual friendship of Japan and the United States of America. In those terms, I am pleased to know that such movie is made. Now we enjoy a peaceful relationship again, but we always have to keep in mind what happened in the past.”
Producers Yoko Narahashi, Eugene Nomura and Gary Foster took part in a Q&A session with Dr. Pedro Loureiro, one of the film’s historical advisors, serving as moderator.
For Narahashi, whose credits include “The Last Samurai,” “Emperor” is a personal story because her grandfather, Teizaburo Sekiya (played by Isao Natsuyagi), helped arrange the historic meeting between MacArthur and Hirohito as a member of the emperor’s Ministry of the Interior.
“It was very meaningful story for me,” she said. “And it is a very strange world of the emperor and there’s just so much that is closed and kept in secret … because very little is written in history books.”
She added that the story is “very relevant to today because of the fact that this is one of the very special cases where a surrender was a peaceful surrender, which affected us on to today.”
Although the movie’s love story between Fellers and Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune) is fictional, Fellers had ties to Japan in real life, Loureiro said, noting that Feller’s cousin Gwen married Japanese diplomat Hidenari Terasaki and lived with him in Japan during the war. Their story was told in Gwen Terasaki’s memoir, “Bridge to the Sun.”
Foster recalled that his research for the film revealed “all the work that was done to make the peace. There’s so many movies that are made about the prosecution of the war … and very few have been made about how the peace was won. I was very intrigued because not only was the peace won, but it was sustained to this day, and it’s a very rare occurrence in the history of the world.
“At the end of World War I, the Allies did not show compassion toward the vanquished, and 30 years later World War II broke out … I thought that the movie would be a really strong story to tell about how revenge is not always the answer.”
On the question of the emperor’s war responsibility, Foster commented, “It’s complicated because there’s various books … different points of view, and nobody can really get to the exact facts on what the emperor did or didn’t do in certain areas. As we say in the film, some things are completely unknowable.”
Nomura, who was born in 1972, was raised in Japan but is bilingual and bicultural, having attended The American School in Japan. Speaking from first-hand experience, he said, “A lot of this information is unheard of even in the Japanese textbooks … I think it’s about time stories like this come out into the open, even to the Japanese people, because not many people know about it …
“When I looked in all the school textbooks in Japan, there’s the main photo of the emperor with MacArthur and just a few lines … something you just skim through … If they’re doing a documentary on a kamikaze pilot, it’ll be him sacrificing his life for the family or for the country, but there’s not the other side … What we tried to accomplish with this film is (showing) both sides … I think it’ll really open up a lot of discussions in Japan.”
Permission from Palace
Foster said one of the great accomplishments of the film was that it got “the first permit ever issued to shoot on the grounds of the Imperial Palace … It took us eight months to get the permit. It wasn’t easy. We were denied many times, but we were persistent …
“The day we shot, we had seven hours … There were at least 20 security people of different rank surrounding our film crew, and if anything went wrong, we were told that we would be immediately escorted off the grounds. So we could have no food, no drink, minimal equipment. It was very stressful, but … I think the movie is better off for it.”
Narahashi said the emperor’s people also provided “this really thick, old book of pictures of inside the palace,” allowing production designer Grant Major, who worked on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, to duplicate the rooms as they looked in 1945.
Most of the movie was shot in New Zealand, Foster said. “There’s a very small but strong Japanese community in New Zealand and they all supported the film. Most of them are in the film as extras. We had people who were working with us on the props and the art and the cultural aspect and helping our Kiwi and American actors understand the language and customs.”
To create a bombed-out Tokyo, the crew used an area where a series of warehouses had burned down, Foster said. “We were able to clean it up and make it safe so we could shoot there … We built in the foreground roads and encampments, then we took visual effects and extended past it. So the big crane shots where MacArthur’s car is driving through that, the first third is the set; the rest of it is all computer-generated.”
Nomura said the visual effects team studied the devastation in tsunami-ravaged Ishinomaki, which was “very similar” to the aftermath of U.S. bombings of Japanese cities.
For the film’s ending, “we could not find in New Zealand a room that was worthy of MacArthur’s study, which is in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the room where the final meeting occurred,” Foster said. “We found our best choice wasn’t great … We had no more money, and somehow we scraped and clawed and found a way to construct that room.”
Jones was the producers’ first choice to play MacArthur. “We wanted an iconic American actor and our philosophy from the beginning was not to imitate MacArthur, but to create the spirit of MacArthur,” Foster explained. “Tommy spends a lot of time in Japan, he does a series of coffee commercials in Japan, he loves Japan, loves the theater, the kabuki, so he was very open to taking on this role.”
The opposite strategy was used in casting Fox, best known for ABC’s “Lost.” “This is his first leading role in a major film … We wanted Fellers to be Fellers. We didn’t want people to look at the actor … We found a fine actor who also could just be the role and not bring distractions to it,” Foster said.
Regarding the Japanese cast, Narahashi said, “I’ve been in this business for a long time in Japan, so a lot of the actors have my trust, and when I approached some of the really good ones … they were very happy to participate. Not a lot of Japanese actors speak English. Most of them could, the ones that we asked, but some of them were not good enough, so we had to train them more. The girl (Hatsune) originally couldn’t speak English, but we all liked her … and she really worked hard to bring it up to par.”
One issue of contention during the Q&A was the absence of any Nisei who served as translators and interpreters with the Military Intelligence Service in occupied Japan. This was pointed out by Darrell Kunitomi, whose father, Jack, is an MIS veteran who was recognized at Congressional Gold Medal celebrations in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.
Foster responded, “GHQ stayed fairly insular in the early days. It did expand afterwards, but I think in the early days MacArthur kept it very tight, very secure. At least that was our research.”
Actor/director Chris Tashima (“Visas and Virtue,” “Lil Tokyo Reporter”) argued, “It’s a glaring omission … The MIS were heavily involved in everything the military was doing in the Pacific, especially in Japan. MacArthur had them with him all the time. It seems absurd to me today a film could be produced about U.S. military operations in Japan … and have no depiction, no mention, no reference to the MIS. Even if they were not in the script you could have at least included background extras.”
Foster emphasized, “This is not a documentary. We tried to get everything that we could right. I’m sure there are more mistakes or more unauthentic things that people will find. But … we tried to do the best we could to tell the spirit of the story … the decision-making process as it related to the emperor. That was our goal.”
In the movie, Fellers’ interpreter is a Japanese national, Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda).
Another audience member predicted “blowback” from Chinese and Korean audiences angry that the emperor escaped punishment for Japanese atrocities in Asia.
Closing remarks were made by Loureiro, who has served as curator of Pomona College’s Pacific Basin Institute. “It pleases me to see these kind of movies come out … At least it gets the general audience … to watch and understand. They’re not about to sit down and read the books, but a movie like this does the job.
“As a historian, as a consultant … I want the stuff even more accurate … but I realize this is a commercial production. They will do what they have to do, but as long as they get this out, people start watching it, maybe my daughter will grow up and do a sequel to this. Maybe somebody out there will do the MIS … I think every little bit helps.
“We apologize for the omission … For my dissertation, my work was on the Navy’s equivalent of the MIS. I interviewed all 24 senseis … I have a very close relationship with the MIS … (but) I couldn’t include everything. Some of my teachers who were involved in the International Military Tribunal, they weren’t shown, but I knew you can only do so much.
“If this movie makes it and people are interested in watching more movies like this, I think we’ve done our job.”
Foster suggested that the DVD of “Emperor” could include a piece about the MIS.
On the Web: www.emperor-themovie.com