Monday, April 29, 2013

Emperor & American Swagger: the Persona Of the American Hero

Emperor is a solid example of classic film making: from the cinematography to the acting, from the screenplay to the set decor, it is seamlessly flawless in every aspect; it might not be high up on the entertainment scale for many because it is for an implied audience of those who prefer drama and have a knowledge of history (although the film walks you through the events so, if you are wanting to learn more about WWII, this would be a great film to catch). When I first saw the trailer, I will not hesitate to confess, I was convinced the film would be anti-American and the "emperor" would be MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and serve as a platform in the Obama agenda; I am most grateful to say, I was completely wrong. Consciously, the film starts walking us on that tightrope, letting us know that it knows what side it can take, but then backs away from it, reminding us of why we as a country did what we did and why it was the right thing to do. The main draw of the film for me, however, is the perfect portrayal of what an American hero is and isn't in its comparison of American soldiers to Japanese soldiers. The summer blockbuster season is about to begin, and with the greatest examples of  leadership and heroism about to be served up to millions and millions worldwide, the question of what virtues make a hero are not merely academic, but necessary.
"America imperialism." Most Americans--myself included--detest that phrase, the idea of conquering another group of people and enforcing our will upon them is abhorrent because it goes against everything we stand for. Someone who believes America is an imperialist country--and there are an increasing number of people who do--would argue that Emperor does nothing more than re-enforce the American myth of World War II and the myth of American democracy that never existed to begin with because corporations in America are imperialist against American workers. General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) plays the main character and is charged by MacArthur with the task of deciding whether or not the emperor was responsible for starting the war; as he researches, he talks to one of the Emperor's cabinet members and he reminds Fellers that all the lands Japan took during World War II, they didn't take from the native people of that country, because Britain and America had all ready taken it: "We were just following your excellent example," he concludes and the film wants you to know that it knows this, it is aware of the anti-American imperialist rhetoric circling in public debates and politics today. I could enter into a long discourse regarding this point but I won't. The point the film wants to make is America seeks to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people; even if we fall short of that at times, that's our purpose and our drive. 
In history, General Douglas MacArthur is one of the military's most controversial figures, so he supplies a perfect example of the good, the bad and the ugly, in the concept of what comprises the "American hero." The heart of the film can be seen in this clip (which is decontextualized, so keep that in mind as you watch it):
The idea of "American swagger" is difficult to define, but we can summarize it in the idea of total self-confidence bordering on arrogance. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pines) from Star Trek, Flint in GI Joe Retaliation, John Carter (Taylor Kitch), Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) in the upcoming After Earth, Thor and, need we even mention, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) of Iron Man (among many others) all embody this persona of American swagger, and even rebelliousness, that make them American heroes; if you took this characterization away from them, would we still go see their films? AGAIN, this is not an academic exercise, because--heretofore--we have always had leaders in America that to at least some degree, would personify themselves with these characteristics, especially when America was under threat; that has changed with the Obama administration because nothing he does--from his constant appearing on talk shows and never-ending vacations, to his failure to defend this country from foreign attacks--is presidential nor American. I doubt any conservative would argue that Obama is arrogant, but he fails--intentionally--to be what an American hero is and all the films coming out this year are reminding Americans how a leader leads.
Some viewers have criticized the "love story" between General Fellers and the international Japanese student Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune) but, because their relationship illustrates so intimately the differences between the Japanese and American cultures, I consider it well played. In many ways, Japan is everything America is not, and those differences are "easy to fall in love with." Japan has an ancient history, all the people share the same heritage and DNA make-up, there is an incredible degree of discipline, endurance and honest humility in the Japanese, extending into their devotion to the emperor and the ability to completely over-ride their own person hood for a greater, national cause, among many other virtues.
Like General Fellers (Matthew Fox) we are disgusted with MacArthur having photos of himself taken all the time and using his role in Japan as a prop for his own presidential ambitions; clearly, we all know in the audience, this is not only a narcissistic vice, but even damnable behavior, yet it demonstrates the superior narrative techniques of the film makers to make an American hero disgusting, but still save him at the end, and make the mortal enemy in the Japanese emperor into a hero and martyr; this isn't easy to do, carrying the psychology of your audience on swinging tightropes and risk losing them with a single word or glance from a character, but that can be done because the film makers are confident in their ultimate subject: America. Arrogance and ambition are bound to happen in great American leaders: think of all Tony Stark's vices, and the risks Captain Kirk takes with the lives of his crew, or Thor's audacity Odin (Anthony Hopkins) punished. With the pursuit of great virtue, great vice is always a danger. That possible danger, however, does not outweigh the rewards of great virtue, but art such as Emperor reminds and critiques the pitfalls so we don't forget them.
Let's admit it: that pipe is ghastly. Why use it? Look at how MacArthur stands: his hands at his back and chest clearly exposed, he is totally vulnerable to being attacked by a sniper with no way of defending himself because he is unarmed and yet, he is not attacked and he shows no fear of being attacked. Isn't that the ultimate in confidence, not only confidence in yourself and confidence in your country, but confidence in the integrity of your foe to keep their word (this will be a point of conflict in Thor the Dark World regarding the relationship between Thor and Loki helping him). Just as MacArthur is a clear, easy target for a sniper, so his pipe is a clear easy target for caricature, but in giving his enemies such an easy target with which to attack him, the ease of the target (the ridiculous pipe) discourages criticism because it's so easy, it's so obvious, his "enemy" would look worse for making fun of the pipe than he does for smoking it; the pipe of Douglas MacArthur exhibits the ultimate in personal confidence because he has--in more ways than one--made himself an easy target which discourages all petty enemies (newspaper reporters and minor politicians) while rallying strong supporters to his side through his obvious and audacious display of self-respect in sporting such a ridiculous prop. We can further make the comparison to the emperor's own person: the Japanese prime minister gives MacArthur a long list of the do's and don'ts of meeting the emperor, and explains to Fellers how extraordinary the emperor's behavior was in directly addressing the war ministry when he recited the poem to them. Just as the emperor reciting the poem was opening him for disrespect among his generals and advisers, so MacArthur's pipe opens him up for disrespect among his advisers, however, those who themselves have self-respect recognize the lack of shallowness in MacArthur's actions (centering on the ghastly pipe) and those are the people MacArthur draws to him, those who--like himself--respect themselves and aren't taken in by shallow honors and displays of popularity. We should pause to mention an important hero in another Tommy Lee Jones film who does not fit this trend of rebellion and arrogance: Captain America. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is pure through and through. While he's tough, he's also the perfect gentleman and never seems to step out of bounds like other heroes, which is probably why, in The Avenges, he and Tony Stark nearly duke it out with each other instead of the enemy: Steve sees men like Tony as an enemy to the American Dream and American nation. It will be intriguing to see what happens to Steve Rogers in Captain America the Winter Soldier and how--if at all--he sways in his purity (which I uphold completely, I think it's fabulous that Captain America is such a gentleman!) or attitude.
Before the war started, Fellers had to do a paper on the Japanese soldier, and Aya helps him with it by introducing him to her uncle who, is a general in the Japanese army, and he sites many of the virtues listed above in the caption as the reasons why Japan would be victorious and conquer anyone who stood in their way and never surrender; after the war, Fellers visits him again, and he is a broken, sad man, who regrets how the Japanese lost their humanity, committed terrible atrocities and lost the war. We don't see American soldiers fighting in the film to compare them, but what we do see is how Fellers composes himself and pursues the course of the best action for America to take in the post-war negotiations (the difference between justice and revenge). It is, without a doubt, Fellers' humanity, his heart, his human emotions that elevates him above others in the film and reminds viewers what makes the American soldier great in reality: our humanity.
When Fellers walks through Japan--starving and cold, on the brink of collapse--he does not rejoice, he does not think, this is what you get for starting a war--he laments the misery human beings are suffering and wants to alleviate that suffering as quickly as possible because he is compassionate. He sees people, not enemies, not sub-humans, but fellow men and women. When Aya and Fellers first meet, he expresses his admiration for her in making such a journey away from home to study in America all by herself, because he connects how difficult that would be for him to do, he bonds with her on this emotional and intellectual plane. But what does she say? She is too outspoken for a woman in Japan, but that's why Fellers loves her and respects her. What was a vice in Japan is a virtue in America, and when we see the trouble being brought on heroes like Captain Kirk, Tony Stark and Thor because of bad decisions, we will also see how they are able to counter-act the effects of their bad decisions with the same will and determination that might have led them to committing the mistake to begin with. Again, all these films serve us with serious examinations of why Americans are the way we are and why we value what we value, what makes a leader and the proper way to lead.
The very unpredictable, untameable and rebellious human heart, with all its problems and darkness, all its drama and stubbornness, is also the greatest source of virtue and heroism, courage and dignity. Because we know our own humanity, we never fail to see it in others, regardless of what they have done to us, and we always act appropriately even when anger and hatred threaten to bring us down (like with the Boston Bombing, or the manhunt in Zero Dark Thirty). Fellers' active appearance of pursuing the truth regarding Japan's war crimes is directed by his personal, hidden pursuit of discovering the fate of Aya. It's not, as one of the other officers suggests to MacArthur that Fellers' love for Aya weakens Fellers to make bad decisions, it's because of his love for her that he is strong enough to make the right decision, because our humanity is--with all its problems-- our greatest attribute as Americans, and that's why we won the war and why we became a defender of all people in the world because we strive to defend others as we defend ourselves. 
There is a scene towards the end when Fellers must go to the emperor's palace and demand to see the Japanese prime minster immediately, which breaks all rules of decorum, but is necessary to close the investigation and make the decision of what will happen to the emperor. When Fellers and a few men, including his Japanese driver, arrive at the barricade to the emperor's palace, Fellers tells his driver/translator, in a most rough manner, that he demands to see the prime minister at that moment; the driver takes it upon himself to tone down the aggressiveness of Fellers' request and present him as a respectful visitor to the guards. The guards comply with the request and, when they tell him Fellers can see the prime minister, Fellers replies to them in Japanese so we know he could have made the hot-headed request himself but he didn't. Why have this scene? Why not just have Fellers ask in Japanese and get it over with? Because both approaches are correct and valid but one approach is more desirable. The Japanese cabinet was failing in the investigation and aggression became necessary because of their lack of willingness to put forth information; on the other hand, the driver's respect and courtesy was also the right approach because that is what gets results. The film makers do not want one strategy invalidated by another, but to demonstrate that both means were necessary to achieve the ends.
Yet, there is also another hero in this film: the Japanese emperor himself. The genius in writing this film lies in how the screen writer and director knew the audience--an informed audience about history and, specifically World War II (a film like this is a directed demographic to a specific type of viewer the same was as films like Project X and Spring Breakers are directed towards a specific demographic)--would assume, like the public at the time the film takes place, that the Japanese emperor was all-powerful and could have stopped the War if he had wanted to, and that he, like his generals, must have been blood-thirsty and wanted to conquer the world,.... knowing this concept is tucked away somewhere within the mind of the viewing audience, the film makers slowly and cautiously introduce the concept of an emperor against the war through small examples that grow to build up a radically different impression we would not have willingly accepted had the story come right out and told us the emperor was innocent; we had to be shown examples of his integrity just as the film shows us examples of American integrity, not to tell us we behaved honorably, but to show us we behaved honorably and compassionately.
Emperor provides a counter-balance to pro-socialist films trying to erase the American memory of why we are such a great country and why and how we became a super-power (The Great Gatsby, for example, will show, in the person of Jay Gatsby [Leonardo DiCaprio] how shallow and myth-making America's history has been and the great things we have done as a country weren't so great after all). When films like Total Recall and Oblivion base the center conflict of the identity of the main character on a loss of memory or amnesia (and we might see this with Lettie [Michelle Rodriguez] in Fast and Furious 6 because she supposedly has amnesia), it's a direct example of re-writing American history in order to indoctrinate us of what horrible people we are individually and as a country, as in Lawless, Django Unchained and Gangster Squad. A film like Emperor, therefore, fulfills an indispensable role in countering and reminding Americans and the world the reality of World War II and its aftermath, why certain decisions were made and the outcome.
When America saved the emperor, America also saved itself, and when America worked with the emperor and the Japanese people to rebuild Japan, we avoided becoming emperors ourselves; yet the humility and love the emperor shows for his people and country clearly exemplifies that Americans do not have a monopoly on virtue, we don't believe we are the only ones who are righteous, we honor it wherever and in whomever we find it. This is the kind of memory films like Oblivion and Total Recall insist we as a culture remember, of what really happened, and not letting someone else tell us what we did and why it was bad. Just as the upcoming 300: Rise of An Empire will show us the simultaneous events of the sea battle while the original 300 depicted the land battle, so Emperor has a simultaneous show going on as well: while America was helping Japan get back to prosperity, the "Iron Curtain" was slowly descending upon Eastern Europe as communism was introduced by the Soviet Union. As MacArthur tells Fellers, "If the emperor goes, the reds enter," and that drama on the "side stage of history," cannot be underestimated.
It's a most moving climax in the film when we finally see the Emperor of Japan with our own eyes. In the last seconds of the trailer at the start of this post, MacArthur says, "I've never met an emperor before, much less a god. What the hell do you say to a god?" but, from what transpires, we know the emperor is probably thinking the exact same thing of what he must say to MacArthur. The concept of a man-turned-god is one we are actually familiar with from 300 in the guise of Xerxes who is coming back in this summer's 300: Rise Of An Empire (not to mention films of Greek/Roman mythology like Wrath Of the Titans, Immortals, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Sea of Monsters, and Hercules which put forth the same concepts). But there is a difference in these two sides, one who makes their self a god, and one who becomes a god by the tremendous virtue and bravery of their actions. In the person of the emperor who is a god according to his people, we see him humble himself before MacArthur and offer himself up as a victim so his people will be spared. This scene is nothing short of beautiful. Why? I don't believe the film intends this, however, that does not invalidate my feeling as a viewer, that it reminds me of Jesus the God of Christianity offering Himself up for the sins of His people, and the emperor-god humbling himself to the status of a war criminal (as Jesus became a criminal on the Cross) paves the way towards understanding what a leader does for their people: a leader suffers for their people, he does not make the people suffer for him.  This is a central conflict of 300 and, which we will undoubtedly see again in 300: Rise Of An Empire, Thor the Dark World and Star Trek Into Darkness. George Washington, for example, is not a god, however, because of his courage and selfless serving of America he has become immortal to us because of his exemplification of heroic virtues we value, and in the films to be released, the same concepts will be put forth. So why are films like Emperor presenting us with examples of men-turned-gods? Is there someone today who has made himself into a god, above the law and makes others suffer for him rather than offering to suffer for others?
When Aya takes Fellers to meet her uncle, they pass mountains; Aya relates how, when she was little, she was told giants lived in the mountains. Where have we seen giants lately? We  can see how the theme of giants would relate to imperialism, for both the Japanese and the Americans, the impulse to become a giant over others. The audience, however, is treated to a rare demonstration of witnessing the giant emperor humbling himself and, by doing so, becoming a giant when he is at his most vulnerable, and MacArthur himself humbly accepting the good-will of the emperor for peace, not retribution. Again, arrogance is always a threat in America, and it's an easy attack to make on the American people--like MacArthur's ghastly pipe--but the real presence of humility and compassion can never be denied, and if we as a country became giants, it's only because our humble human nature made us so.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner