CANNES EXCLUSIVE: Peter Webber's Post-World War II Epic 'Emperor' Sells in Japan

Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox star in the sweeping historical drama, about whether to charge Emperor Hirohito for war crimes; the movie has sparked keen interest among foreign buyers at the Cannes film market.

Embracing a controversial and painful chapter in its country’s history, leading Japanese studio and distributor Shochiku has picked up rights to roll out Peter Webber’s English-language epic Emperor in Japan.

It’s a key deal for the producers of Emperor and Nick Meyer and Marc Schaberg’s Sierra/Affinity, which also has sold the film in a number of European territories during the Marche du Film in Cannes, which wraps Friday. And the film is sure to land a U.S. distributor.

Emperor, set in post-World War II during the American occupation of Japan, is based on the real-life story of whether to try Emperor Hirohito for war crimes.

The film stars Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas MacArthur – the de facto ruler of Japan -- and Matthew Fox as Gen. Bonner Fellers, who led the investigation into whether to charge Hirohito. Emperor also stars rising Japanese actress Eriko Hatsune and well-known Japanese actor Toshiyuki Nishida.

Emperor -- falling into the classic Hollywood genre of historical dramas that include a personal journey -- is interwoven with a love affair between Fellers and Aya (Hatsune), a Japanese exchange student he met in the United States prior to the war. Feller’s quest to find her helps him discover both his wisdom and humanity, and enables him to reach a decision that will change the course of history.

The pic, now in postproduction, was produced by Yoko Narahashi (The Last Samurai), Gary Foster (Sleepless in Seattle, The Soloist), Eugene Nomura (Tajomaru) and Russ Krasnoff (The Soloist) and is a Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment and United Performer’s Studio Production.

The deal with Shochiku was negotiated by Sierra executive vp international sales Jonathan Kier.

Sierra and Emperor's producers faced formidable challenges in selling an English-language film to a Japanese distributor. The push to charge Hirohito as a war criminal is still a touchy subject in Japan, though the emperor who reigned for 63 years ultimately wasn’t tried.

Several years ago, Japanese distributors wouldn’t pick up Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov’s similarly themed The Sun, which portrayed the relationship between MacArthur and Hirohito. Exhibitors were worried that conservative nationalists, who object to the portrayal of their country as an occupied state, would protest.

Japanese money did finance some of Emperor’s budget, and Webber was the first director to ever be granted access to shoot on the Imperial grounds, the main residence of the current Emperor of Japan and the Imperial family. After Hirohito, the Emperor was no longer considered a deity.

“The Japanese audience is very important to us as the film’s story portrays a key period of the country’s history,” the producers said. "We are confident Shochiku is the ideal partner to bring this epic to Japan."

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