By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2013)
The heroes and villains are not easily delineated in Emperor, an uneven hybrid of History Channel docudrama and Lifetime weepie based on Shiro Okamoto’s book and directed by Peter Weber. Set in post-WW 2 Japan at the dawn of the American occupation, the story centers on the roundup of key Japanese military and political leaders to be tried for war crimes.
President Truman has appointed General Douglas MacArthur (a scenery-chewing Tommy Lee Jones) to oversee the operation; he in turn delegates “Japan expert” Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (tepid leading man Matthew Fox) to see that the task is executed pronto. Fellers is also directed to investigate whether the biggest fish, Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) gave direct input on war strategy. MacArthur has allotted him only a week or so to conduct his investigation (no pressure!).
Indeed, the question of the Emperor’s guilt is a complex one (and the most historically fascinating element of the film). Was he merely a figurehead, kept carefully squirreled away in his hermetic bubble throughout the war and occasionally trotted out for propaganda purposes? Or did he have a direct say in military decisions, perhaps even giving a blessing for the attack on Pearl Harbor?
And there is the cultural element to consider. MacArthur (at least as depicted in the film) was shrewd enough to realize that if he could build a working relationship with Hirohito, perhaps the Emperor could in turn persuade the populace to cooperate with their overseers, thereby expediting the rebuild of Japan’s sociopolitical infrastructure. Even if he was a paper tiger, the Emperor’s words traditionally held substantial sway over the Japanese people.
Unfortunately, screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass shoot themselves in the foot and sidestep this potentially provocative historical reassessment by injecting an unconvincing romantic subplot involving Fellers’ surreptitious search to discover the fate of a Japanese exchange student (Aya Shimada) who he dated in college (the young woman, whose father was a general in the Imperial Army, returned to Japan before the war). The flashback scenes recapping the relationship are curiously devoid of passion and dramatically flat, grinding the film to a halt with each intrusion.
While Fox has a touch of that stoic Henry Fonda/Gary Cooper vibe going for him, his performance feels wooden, especially when up against Jones, who makes the most of his brief screen time (even he is given short shrift, mostly relegated to caricature and movie trailer-friendly lines like “Let’s show them some good old-fashioned American swagger!”).
I get the feeling that at some point during the film’s development there was an interesting culture-clash drama in here somewhere. But when the denouement is a re-enactment of an historic photo that slowly dissolves from the actors into the actual photo? That is almost never a good sign…