PLOT: After Emperor Hirohito's World War II surrender, General Douglas MacArthur suddenly finds himself the de facto ruler of a foreign nation. MacArthur assigns an expert in Japanese culture, General Bonner Fellers, to covertly investigate the involvement of the Emperor, worshipped by his people as a god by his people, to see how deep his involvement in Japan's war effort really was.
REVIEW: EMPEROR is what can be accurately called a "handsomely made" production. Great attention was paid on all technical fronts: production and costume design, cinematography and even a smattering of visual effects are all very well done. It's a fascinating story, one that is probably largely unknown to the general public; one that sheds quite a bit of light on a few of World War II's most arresting figures... So it's a bit disappointing to report that it falls short of the serious potential inherent in the material, becoming a rather high-quality History Channel production instead of a complex cinematic experience.
After the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's enigmatic ruler Emperor Hirohito surrendered unconditionally, which led to the U.S. occupation of the country with famed General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) at the helm. MacArthur's task was no less than the rebuilding of the country, a truce with its people and, perhaps most difficult, a conclusion regarding the fate of Hirohito, a man beloved and deified by his people. Regardless of his involvement in the war (Pearl Harbor, especially), the Emperor's fate would ultimately determine the fate of Japan: if found to be a war criminal, and subsequently executed, the country would completely revolt. If he wasn't found to be at fault, the citizens of the U.S. would likely be completely outraged. A true Catch-22.
MacArthur saw fit to give the responsibility to Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a General with a distinct knowledge of Japanese culture; a man who had in fact found love once with a Japanese exchange student in America. Fellers' task was impossible: in ten days, he was to determine Hirohito's culpability, hence determining an immense step in the post-war world.
This is a really captivating subplot in WWII history, but director Peter Webber and his screenwriters, David Klass and Vera Blasi, have not found a compelling way to tell it. Their movie is a ponderous, overly stuffy experience, whereas a sense of discovery and mystery should be pulsing through its veins. The film develops a simple formula: Fellers goes to see a high-ranking Japanese official in order to question him about the Emperor's involvement in events like Pearl Harbor, the official is frustratingly vague and hesitant to reveal much, Fellers moves on to another interview subject while frequently having flashbacks to his bittersweet love affair with the Japanese woman. EMPEROR is a predictable film, never wavering from these beats, all the while sadly missing out on opportunities to elevate the tale into something exciting and even adventurous. (It's too late for EMPEROR to take notes now, but ARGO is the perfect example of how to tell a real-life story of intrigue and historical importance with a sense of fun and danger.)
It's possible that EMPEROR would be more interesting if we saw it predominantly from the Japanese's perspective. Getting the tale from Fellers' POV highlights the elusive nature of the Japanese people and their strict loyalties, but we're never closer to fully understanding them at the end of the story than we were at the beginning. It's the nagging Hollywood way: remember how AMISTAD became about the white lawyer when the African slaves were so clearly meant to be the focus?
Matthew Fox is the other key flaw. Stoic to a fault, the actor cuts an appealing but monotonous screen presence. This is subjective, of course, but Fox is just not an actor of huge range; he's like a slightly more emotive marble statue. He's often overmatched by the supporting cast, whether it's Eriko Hatsune as Fellers' lost love, or Masayoshi Haneda as his conflicted interpreter; Haneda really shines and effectively steals every scene he's in.
Tommy Lee Jones is all bluster, scowls and stern proclamations as MacArthur; I suppose it's perfect casting, even if the actor is doing exactly what we'd expect of him in a role like this. The film's most vivid scene, however, comes when Jones calms down to a borderline whisper when he finally meets the Emperor. It's a subtly touching sequence, one that almost makes up for the unfortunately prosaic film that came before it.