“Emperor” is one of those movies that come across as a frustratingly missed opportunity. It’s the first contemporary Hollywood film set during the U.S.-led occupation of Japan at the close of World War II, and it uncovers a part of history that many people are not fully aware. But in the process of delving into the subject of whether a world leader should be punished for crimes against humanity, “Emperor” gets bogged down with a love story which takes away from the movie it could have been.
The story begins with an airplane descending into a Japan that has been decimated by atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and the country has since announced its surrender. Coming out of that plane is General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) who has been tasked by President Harry S. Truman to restore order in Japan and prepare the country for democratic elections (sound familiar?). But the one big problem MacArthur has to contend with before any of this can happen is of what to do with Emperor Hirohito (Takatarô Kataoka); should this man be made to stand trial for brutal war crimes, or is there another way of moving Japan forward without having to do that?
MacArthur ends up assigning General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) to find out if Hirohito was in anyway responsible for war crimes that were carried out, and if he was the one who ordered the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. The scenes where Fellers does his investigation and gathers evidence from survivors and Japanese military officers are among the film’s most fascinating moments. We all know how World War II ended, but it’s these specific details about this operation that are very illuminating because we never got to read about them in history books.
But it turns out that Fellers has an ulterior motive for going to Japan; he wants to search for his long lost love Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese school teacher whom he met and fell in love with years before. There are flashbacks where we see how their relationship started and of how it eventually brought Fellers to Japan and it proves to be a good device to show the cultural differences between it and America. At the same time the romance subplot really just slows the whole movie down, and I found myself getting bored. Had the movie focused more on the investigation into the Emperor’s activities, it would have been much better.
“Emperor” also could have used a lot more of Tommy Lee Jones in it as it’s hard to think of another actor in this day and age who could have embodied General MacArthur better than him. Whenever Jones is onscreen, he steals every single scene as he gives this real American hero a wonderful sense of humor and a no apology pro-American stance. Coming off of his Oscar nominated performance in “Lincoln,” Jones seems to be getting the roles he rightfully deserves to play these days.
Matthew Fox, now looking like a normal person after his bizarre transformation in “Alex Cross,” does good work as Fellers and shares a palpable chemistry with Hatsune in their scenes together. Still, this role only allows him to go so far as an actor as Fellers becomes another guy searching for his long lost love.
Directing “Emperor” is Peter Webber who previously helmed “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Now with that movie he was able to create a strong undercurrent of sexual tension between Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson, and the fact that he’s not able to achieve that same tension between Fox and Hatsune is kind of surprising. On the plus side, he does get good performances from his cast and (along with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and production designer Grant Major) also gets some amazing shots of a war town Japan. I say they are amazing because the budget for this one is rather low for a historical film, and they succeeded in making it look like it cost a lot more.
Webber also directed the prequel “Hannibal Rising,” but we’ll just leave that one on the back burner for now.
Learning more about this story of the American occupation in Japan brings to mind similar occasions where America has invaded other countries like Vietnam or Iraq to whip a little democracy on them. Whether or not it was the intention of the filmmakers to remind us of these conflicts, they do serve as a reminder of how we need to learn from the past to prevent the same thing happening in the future. But in the end, “Emperor” feels like a history lesson that would have been better told in a book rather than in a movie.
In 2012 we saw a lot of films based on historical or actual events like “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty” that were incredibly riveting even though how the events were going to play out. I was really hoping that “Emperor” would have the same effect, and the fact that it doesn’t is a shame. It’s not a terrible movie and there a number of things about that are very good, but in retrospect it could have been a lot better.