The End Of The End Of World War II As We Know It
The events leading up to the surrender of Japan on 15th August 1945 is an interesting topic. There was quite a bit of politicking carried out by the heads of the military in Japan. Some of the meetings were pretty dramatic and poignant. The angst and the pride of proud men on the line, trying to salvage the un-salvage-able, hit a crescendo in early August 1945. It’s great fodder for an excellent movie. As it turns out (as Apple staff are told to say instead of “unfortunately”), this is not that movie.
What we have instead is a fairly ill-informed, loosely told crappy reconstruction of the earliest days of the MacArthur GHQ. For start General Bonner Fellers is the romantic lead. Why, they could have had Curtis LeMay as the comic relief!
What’s Good About It
Somebody had to approach the topic at some point in time; why on Earth did MacArthur let the Emperor of Japan avoid going to trial a the Tokyo Trials? It’s a worthy question. Of course, then they smother it in a bullshit romance flashback, but the film sort of gropes at a fairly interesting point about Japan between 1868 and 1945: Japan was a constitutional monarchy. So the immediate thrust of the film is try and pin the blame on the Emperor and the throne, only to find the Emperor as having been a sort of passenger of history who rubber stamped things.
All of this is handled in a very ham-fisted way, but the core of it is that they can’t stick the Emperor on trial not only for reasons of realpolitik, but basically because the roles ascribed to the Emperor doesn’t line up with dictators like Hitler or Mussolini.
What’s Bad About It
The romantic subplot is terrible. It’s just awful. And it takes up lots of screen time.
The directing is even worse. I don’t know where they find these crappy directors. This Peter Webber fellow can’t set up a scene without crossing the line over and over again. He’s also a terrible director of actors, and seems to have no idea how editing works, so consequently seems to create scenes with no tension or rhythm. The sense of narrative is a mess and on the whole he seems to have been interested in all the wrong things, just so he can tell his crappy romantic story which probably has no basis in real life whatsoever. I thought Baz Luhrman was a particularly awkward, technically deficient director, but this Peter Webber is even worse. He has himself a really interesting topic and makes an utter balls up of it.
I don’t know what else to say but this is a really crappy movie entertainment-wise as well as being a particularly shitty bit of film making.
What’s Interesting About It
They keep making and remaking these Pocahontas stories where some white dude goes to another culture and falls in love with some local girl. Then the dude ends up being the meat in the sandwich of the story and well, you only have to look at successful examples like ‘Witness’ (the Amish) or ‘Avatar’ (aliens with blue skin) to see it’s a ruse to get you an ‘in’ on the narrative about “the other”. Of course the other painful one is ‘The Last Samurai’ which was preceded by ‘James Clavell’s Shogun’ many years ago. You’d think that white people could get to Japan and just get on with whatever it is they need to do in the story instead having to spend 40minutes chasing skirt. But you know how it goes.
Some films are more deft at doing this insertion-of-romantic-hocus-pocus while films like this one stick out as a monument to the stupidity of the trope. Other films are worse on this count – like ‘Dances With Wolves’ where it turns out there’s already a white woman who’s gone native on the other side waiting or the white male hero to show up. It’s the kind of narrative move that strains credulity but for the sake of getting on with the story, you grin and bear these bits. Sometimes there is what I like to call the ‘Tatanka’ where the white guy swaps vocab with the locals. Which sometimes has narrative bearing, but usually it’s just another ruse to establish the white male hero is getting to see things form the perspective of the other. “our people think… blah-blah-blah.”
The point being you’d think that sometimes sensible producers would say to their writers “look, that story trope has been done to death and it’s harder and harder to do it better. If you don’t have a good story angle, don’t do it.” The producers on this one, displaying an incredible naivety and possibly mediocre sensibilities, chose to go hard with the insertion-of-romantic-hocus-pocus, the Tatanka, and the obligatory “our people think blah-blah-blah”.
Well, I point both my index fingers at the heavens by my temple and say “Tatanka” to you!
Sometimes It’s Shrouded In Secrecy, Sometimes It’s Shrouded In Myth, But Sometimes It’s Just Coated With Bullshit
Western historians really don’t want to hear this but the two atomic bombs didn’t really figure that much into the thinking of the ministers meeting with the Emperor in the days leading up to the end of the war. The records of what was discussed is actually out there, published long ago. Plenty of historians have gone through this material and it’s pretty clear that when they dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima, the news merely dampened the mood in that room even further. You have to understand that Generals Anami and Itagaki were pretty keen to fight the Americans on land, hand to hand on the streets and inflict as much casualty on everybody and everything. That’s what the generals wanted and were willing to repeat the Battle of Okinawa all over Japan.
You can just imagine the Emperor impassively listening to this tirade thinking, “what are these lunatics talking about?”
So what were they talking about? They were talking about the Potsdam Declaration. In particular they were particularly concerned as to how to interpret ‘…subject to…’ and whether this meant that the Emperor would become the subject of the President of the United States or whether the people of Japan would become slaves. On the 9th the news of Nagasaki being bombed by the second atomic bomb came in and they were still arguing about what ‘…subject to…’ meant. One can imagine remarks like the Clintonian “that would depend on what you meant by ‘subject’ and what you meant by ‘to'” that would fit perfectly in such conversations.
It’s painful to read this stuff. Whole cities were being laid to waste and the blowhard chiefs of the General Staff and Army minster Anami going on about how everybody in Japan was going to die in battle. Ascribing the end of the Pacific War to the 2 atomic bombs is incredibly optimistic reading of the impact of technology. If anything it was a bonus side show, as it didn’t really sink into the retrograde heads of the General Staff and Army minister Anami.
One’s natural inclination is to think there must be more to the end of the war and the two atomic bombs than this; we are often betrayed by just how banal and prosaic the actors are, on history’s great stage.
Showa Emperor Hirohito And Culpability
The more things I read and see about the late Showa Emperor, the more I’m persuaded to think that he didn’t speak up enough. he didn’t speak up much at all from what we can gather, and when he was a young man, it’s easy to believe he he was totally cowered and intimidated by the great admirals and generals that fought in the war against Russia in 1904-1905. Even in the 16th year of his reign as Japan stumbled along into war with America, one feels he could have spoken out a bit more than insist on peace.
Some western and Chinese historians have decided that the Showa Emperor had a sideline in being a villainous conspirator with the Army generals and gave them tacit support for the push into China and Manchuria, but this is contradicted by the extensive Kido diaries. The man was a lot more alone and isolated on the throne. The film comes close to capturing just how isolated the Emperor was from his people. What it doesn’t do is fill the gap in between with any kind of explanation or meaning. There’s just this sable black gulf of willful ignorance and Rumsfeld-ian unknonwn-unknowns.
From all accounts, he interpreted his position under the Meiji Constitution as being a ceremonious head of state who rubber stamped the decisions made in cabinet. He sat through his cabinet meetings, stony faced and impassive, but always keeping his opinions to himself and away from the ministers. During the ‘February 26 Incident‘, when junior Army officers attempted to mount a coup in his name, he refused to lend any support to them, berated them for killing cabinet minsters, and threatened to lead the Imperial guard divisions himself to root out the young officers.
You sort of wonder why he didn’t tell these crazy generals to get back in their box more often, in the lead up to the war.