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.
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