There are several interesting elements tucked away inside "Emperor." Most prominently, there is America’s post-WWII occupation of Japan, which involved investigating the role of the country’s emperor in Pearl Harbor and determining his future. There is also the presence of General Douglas MacArthur, played with showy bravado by recent Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones. These are potent, dynamic stories and characters that could make for a fascinating film.
Unfortunately, director Peter Webber’s war drama doesn't have much interest in these elements. Instead, "Emperor" hitches its wagon to Matthew Fox from "Lost" and his bland historical romance. Sure, the drama of holding the fate of a country’s leader (and an entire country for that matter) plays a role in "Emperor," but it feels shockingly slight considering how much time we spend with Fox’s droopy love story.
Fox plays Bonner Fellers, a U.S. General heading off to post-WWII Japan. The country is reeling from the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now America – led by General MacArthur – is coming in to rebuild, as well as to investigate whether Emperor Hirohito deserves blame and punishment for his role in Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the fighting in the Pacific.
MacArthur selects Fellers to lead the investigation, mainly because of his knowledge and understanding of Japan, its people and its culture. The young military man has his hands full, however, with another, more personal goal: finding an old flame (Eriko Hatsune) from his college days who may have perished in the numerous bombing raids on the country.
You’d think the moral dilemma of determining whether or not a ruler deserves to hang would merit the most screen time, but apparently writers Vera Blasi and David Klass disagree. Audiences are instead treated to an extended look at Fellers’s relationship, ranging from their time at school to their courting in Japan to his desperate search for her current whereabouts.
True, the subplot does add to Fellers as a character, but it draws more of the film’s attention than the complex real-life wartime drama, and worst of all, it’s just not all that interesting. Their love story is a standard-issue romance – cue the happy couple running through a field, or bamboo forest in this case – with an equally dull actor in the lead. Fox may look the part of a square-jawed all-American soldier, but it’s not a particularly captivating performance.
It looks even more tepid next to Tommy Lee Jones’s lively portrayal of General MacArthur. When we first meet the legendary general, he’s landing in Japan, putting on a show of American swagger with his corncob pipe and boisterous demeanor. As "Emperor" goes on, we’re not even sure how much we can trust him, as his decision about the emperor may be just as motivated by his lofty political aspirations as Fellers’s final report.
It’s a complicated character (made even more entertaining by Jones’s typically grumpy snap) that makes you wonder why we couldn’t be following him instead of our milquetoast hero and his mopey romantic dramas, both past and present.
When "Emperor" decides to put the focus on the history rather than Fox’s love story, it struggles to bring it to life. Webber has a gorgeous eye – one shot of a house’s yellow windows against the purple sky at dusk is breathtaking – but when it comes to creating something equally compelling for the brain or heart, he has little inspiration.
The investigation is fairly dreary, moving with very little momentum or excitement. The long breaks for the romance don’t help, and neither do Fellers’s multiple voiceover monologues that excessively holds the audience's hand through the story without actually involving anyone in the process. An additional hint of drama comes in the form of a rival officer, but the subplot comes out of nowhere and goes just as far.
During one early meeting with a Japanese government official, Fox declares, "I don't need a history lesson." Thanks to its lifeless and distracted storytelling, that’s unfortunately all "Emperor" can really provide.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Dec. 19, 2014
"The Interview" was canceled this past week amongst hack attacks and terrorist threats. It doesn't matter that this happened to THIS particular movie. What matters is what this means for ALL movies. And what this moment represents is a terrible precedent for the future of film and art altogether.
Published Dec. 17, 2014
When I arrived to interview Harlem Globetrotter Sweet J Ekworomadu - the 12th female player in the team's 89-year history - in advance of their traditional New Year's Eve game at the BC, I was asked if I wanted to play a game of horse with Sweet J. Considering I hadn't shot a basketball since probably middle school, I couldn't turn down the opportunity fast enough. I was, however, able to ask some one-on-one questions with Ekworomadu.
Published Dec. 16, 2014
The story behind "It's a Wonderful Life" is now almost as well-known as the story of George Bailey himself. The movie performed below expectations back in 1946, but several decades later, as the movie made its way into the public domain, "It's a Wonderful Life" grew into a holiday classic. Now there's many renditions of the story, including a staged radio show version - complete with old school sound effects - coming to the Marcus Center.
Published Dec. 15, 2014
Fans have been routinely left waiting for a Chris Rock movie that truly plays up to the standard of Chris Rock. Luckily, the wait is over with the arrival of "Top Five," a loose-limbed comedy about celebrity that feels like a movie worthy of its star - in both its voice and its significant supply of laughs.
Published Dec. 12, 2014
2014 is coming to a close, which means it's time to put my first full calendar year as an official working, adult member of society in the books (well, jury's still out on the adult part). Here are some of the most memorable moments - both good and bad - from a most memorable year.
Published Dec. 10, 2014
Luckily, what's currently housed and featured at the Racine Art Museum is just as interesting and compelling as the building itself: an expansive two-part exhibition called "in(Organic)," a compilation of art works that combine the natural and unnatural - in terms of thematic meaning and artistic medium - in ways both beautiful and often unnerving.
Published Dec. 9, 2014
What doesn't kill you supposedly makes you stronger. In the case of the sneakily incisive new Swedish dark comedy "Force Majeure," however, what doesn't kill you reveals your deepest faults to all of your loved ones. And they are not impressed.
Published Dec. 8, 2014
2014 was the year of the selfie. In the beginning of the year, there was the great Oscars selfie, a photo that literally broke Twitter for a few seconds. The word existed before, but after that, suddenly news stations and outlets were attempting to cram it into every headline (similar to "twerk" in 2013) and everybody was getting on board with the word. A part of that selfie insanity was the irony-drenched EDM hit "#Selfie" from The Chainsmokers.
Published Dec. 7, 2014
When it comes to the classic story of "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge has always been the star. But just as important to the story are the Cratchits, who embody the Christmas spirit and the human spirit so essential to Dickens's fable. For the past few years, the two characters have been played in the Milwaukee Rep's annual production by the same two Milwaukee actors: Jonathan Wainwright and Marti Gobel.
Published Dec. 6, 2014
In late July, Wisconsin-based author Lesley Kagen released the e-novella "The Undertaking of Tess." The brief story played the role of a charming and intriguing little introduction to the young Finley sisters Tessie and Birdie. That e-novella was merely the appetizer, however; "The Resurrection of Tess Blessing" serves as the full course.