Peter Webber’s Emperor is the 1940′s war film that era never made, taking place after WWII and focused not on the military angle, but on the investigation of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito for war crimes. To be sure, it has all of the elements that would have felt at home during that time period, including square-jawed Hollywood stars, a forbidden romance, and a few rough and tumble bar fights. Webber, responsible for the fine if uninspiring Girl with the Pearl Earring, builds the drama from familiar pieces, and recounts a generally interesting untold bit of history while mostly avoiding cliche.
Matthew Fox’s fictional Gen. Fellers has been commissioned by Gen. MacArthur (another exercise in stoicism by Tommy Lee Jones) to examine Japan’s leaders and discover which should be executed and which should be recruited in returning the country from rubble. The meat of Emperor revolves around Fellers trying to pry behind the curtain of Hirohito’s divine stature and acquire proof, if possible, of his culpability.
Takataro Kataoka delivers a strong, nuanced performance as the mysterious and defiant Hirohito, and Fox does fine work as the kind of terse, charismatic hero films of this nature tend to run on. Jones is best as MacArthur and one wishes his portrait of the general were allowed to grow in the same way Kataoka’s emperor does. Alas, he’s sitting at the periphery doing what Jones does best–adding lively authenticity to the educational plot points. Eriko Hatsune embodies grace and longing as Aya, that old lover Feller is scouring Tokyo for during his mission.
Historians will balk at Emperor’s continuing reliance on a milquetoast love story that’s been shoehorned in to pad the running time. Flashbacks to Feller and Aya frolicking in happier times is never as interesting as the sequences where Feller roams the bombed-out city, which has been so realistically rendered by Webber and his production team that the cost of victory resonates with each image. The pain of human loss is well depicted in Emperor, but that’s not its primary point; the film isn’t pretending there were shades of gray to World War II, and it’s far from suggesting that our actions were not necessary in achieving a much needed end to the conflict.
Instead, Webber is examining the work of the men and women who stood up in the aftermath of the war–on both sides–and sought to find diplomatic common ground for the road forward. The best scenes in Emperor involve Toshiyuki Nishida as Gen. Kajima, Aya’s uncle, who gives Feller a perspective of Japan’s culture and values, shedding light on vanity and pride disguised as nationalism. What’s most compelling is the way Feller and the audience must together juggle revenge and bitterness with compassion and yearning for reconciliation. It’s not a mild nor timid movie that could successfully wrestle with such feelings, and for the most part Emperor does its themes proper justice.
Emperor has been handsomely mounted on the production end, and Japan of 1945 jumps to life, not just in the depictions of its bombed out cityscapes but also the Imperial chambers and bamboo forests. The entire picture has an understated and quiet dignity that feels appropriate for the story being told. Make no mistake either, this is a story worth telling. One could only wish that the filmmakers had trusted their subject matter more and not so often retreated to the familiar standbys of Hollywood formula. Still, this is a welcome look at an often passed aspect of WWII and Webber and his team do it justice.
Emperor score on Rotten Tomatoes: 34% fresh