It’s been a while since director Peter Webber has had a feature film in theaters. Six years to be exact. And to be honest, his last film Hannibal Rising was not a smashing success. To put it nicely, the reviews were unkind. With Emperor he gets the chance to redeem himself, and gives us a small look into what was required to keep the peace of an entire nation.
From the film’s trailer, Emperor looks like it could be a sweeping Post war epic tale. And in a way it is. In August of 1945 American military pilots dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This effectively ended the Pacific War and led to the surrender of Japan. However, at the time there were still a lot of unanswered questions about who should take the blame. On one hand, Emperor Hirohito was seen as the supreme ruler of Japan and revered by the people as something close to a god. On the other hand, Japan had a highly dedicated military council who oversaw the majority of war decisions. What to do, what to do?
This is the conundrum faced by General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) after becoming somewhat of a de facto ruler in the land of the rising sun. As the cliché goes: “Washington wants someone to blame.” So MacArthur puts together an investigation team including General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) who will determine who was where and who did what. On top of a ridiculously small window of time to accomplish this, Fellers is also searching for his lost love Aya, (Eriko Hatsune) who may or may not be alive after the massive bombings. This leads us to a fractured love story that, through its retelling, in a small way, helps to bring about a conclusion to the much larger and more important investigation.
Emperor succeeds in painting a picture that is neither black nor white, but definitively grey. Through the hard work of Webber, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, and famed Lord of the Rings production designer Grant Major, this film really is beautiful to watch. Yet even with the gravitas of Tommy Lee Jones (who seems to be having a blast chewing up the scenery as MacArthur) and a very good Japanese supporting cast, it never really achieves that emotional plateau you want it to. While Matthew Fox is no doubt a strong lead, he seems miscast here, and it’s hard to truly connect with his character because of it. The real Bonner Fellers was around 50-years-old when the film supposedly takes place. At 46, Fox isn’t to far off from that, but he seems a lot younger in this role.
There’s also the issue of tension. In the film, Fellers holds the trump card depending on the findings of his investigation. Now while the Japanese commanders probably weren’t overly forthcoming with wartime information, it does seems obvious that some high ranking official would inevitably come forward at the last second to save face and prevent further dishonor. Without spoiling the ending, the film’s conclusion seems more of an afterthought than a solid statement, even if it is historically accurate.
While we critics can say what we like, but without talking to both Japanese and Americans who were alive during this time period, it feels almost unfair to gauge whether or not Emperor is a good film. Not since the bombing of Pearl Harbor have we as a nation collectively hated an entire race of people. In fact, it’s been over seventy years since that infamous December morning, and to this day there are still Americans who won’t buy things solely because they are made in Japan. However, even if the film only succeeds in opening up more discussion and research about just what was at stake in Japan after 1945, you have to imagine Director Webber has done his job pretty well.