Half crinoline romance, half crusty military-history lesson, “Emperor” goes behind the scenes immediately following Japan’s surrender in World War II to reveal the delicate negotiations that allowed disgraced emperor Hirohito to maintain his title, provided he denounce his divinity. Apart from a fun piss-and-vinegar turn from Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas MacArthur that builds to an amusing finale, director Peter Webber’s stiff retelling tackles a key 20th-century turning point from the wrong character’s perspective, suggesting everything hinged on the sympathies of “Jap lover” Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox). Lionsgate/Roadside faces an uphill battle to generate interest.
Certainly the subject iself is compelling enough: A few years back, Russian master Alexander Sokurov examined the same transitional moment from the perspective of Hirohito himself in “The Sun,” resulting in one of the decade’s most psychologically rich character studies. Here, the emperor (Takataro Kataoka) remains an enigmatic offscreen figure for the majority of the film, which instead focuses on Gen. Fellers’ dishearteningly banal, Nancy Drew-like investigation into whether Hirohito was guilty of war crimes.
To appreciate the stakes of MacArthur’s position, one must consider the vast cultural differences between America and pre-Westernized Japan. A nation with more than 2,000 years of history, Japan was firmly rooted in a tradition of honor and obedience that held the emperor as a figure chosen by heaven, at whose command young warriors would gladly sacrifice their lives. Just imagine the loyalty required to motivate kamikaze strikes, and by extension, how devastated these followers must be to see their divinely chosen leader yield to American forces — a situation that potentially put the crippled nation on the brink of mass suicides and revolt.
Vera Blasi and David Klass’ script leadenly establishes this context for Fellers’ task, which amounts to interviewing the members of Hirohito’s inner circle in order to discern whether the emperor ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many of these figures were eventually executed or life-imprisoned for their own roles in the war, while many others committed suicide before standing trial. Pic appears to be a high-end vanity project for producer Yoko Narahashi, granddaughter of Teizaburo Sekiya (Isao Natsuyagi), who worked for Japan’s Ministry of the Interior during the surrender and is conveniently exonerated in the end credits. Working for hire, Webber couldn’t ask for a better crew, though his impersonal direction lacks the passionate spark of his earlier “The Girl With a Pearl Earring.”
The story lends itself to a certain amount of pageantry, and Webber sets the stage via stunning CG views of the bombed-out Japan, which, in addition to the newsreel footage of the Enola Gay delivering its atomic payload that opens the picture, makes the experience feel far larger than the stuffy offices where most of the drama takes place. So, too, do “Emperor’s” meticulous production and costume design, along with strategic location work captured via elegant widescreen compositions, seamlessly blending New Zealand-based sets with scenes shot just out Japan’s seldom filmed Imperial Palace.
And yet the script counters this big-picture approach by devoting so much attention to its rather generic love story: Before Pearl Harbor, Fellers met Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), the Catholic daughter of a wealthy Japanese landowner, but their romance was cut short by the war. Where his comrades in the U.S. Army had no trouble fighting their faceless enemies, Fellers saw the Japanese people differently, even going so far as to divert bombing missions from areas where Aya might be.
On one hand, this element of the film is an unwelcome distraction, reducing Fox’s already ineffectual character to an emotional sop. At the same time, the subplot conveys the pic’s essential message: In order to effectively rebuild a foreign culture, America must first understand the values and beliefs of the vanquished people. With such efforts underway today in Iraq and Afghanistan, the wisdom of how Fellers and MacArthur handled Japan seems more relevant than ever. And yet “Emperor’s” bloodless presentation fails on a fundamental dramatic level, playing like the fancy version of a junior-high educational filmstrip, down to the false suspense of Alex Heffes’ corny ticking-clock score.