Saturday, March 16, 2013


Emperor begins in the days immediately following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and his officers arrive in a bombed-out Tokyo as occupiers tasked with rebuilding a country. Among the  staff officers is a younger general named Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox, still in dogged Jack mode), whom MacArthur will task with arresting the upper echelon of the Japanese government. It is Fellers’ job to make sure that former Prime Minister Tojo (Shohei Hino) and others don’t commit suicide but rather are able to stand trial for war crimes against the Americans. Fellers carries out his duties with dispatch, but then his mission changes. Acting at the President’s request, MacArthur orders Fellers to determine if Emperor Hirohito should be deposed and arrested. Doing so could touch off a revolt among the newly conquered Japanese, but there is also a risk to leaving him in power when it’s uncertain what kind of a partner he’ll be in peacetime.

The bulk of Emperor, directed by Peter Webber, is structured as a detective story in which Fellers interviews a succession of grim, reticent Japanese men who equivocate as to whether or not Hirohito ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fellers also has a personal agenda in Japan; in flashback we see the story of his pre-war romance with a shy teacher named Aya (Eriko Hatsune) he meets at college in America. Fellers’ increasingly intense search for Aya is the other strand of Emperor, but Aya spends so much time helping Fellers write his thesis that all we take from these scenes is how curious about and sensitive to Japanese culture Fellers is becoming. By insisting upon the inscrutability of Japanese culture, the movie makes it harder to care about the Japanese as people. Given 10 days to learn to the truth about Hirohito, Fellers is able to gather almost no information until the last minute when a key source unfolds a tale of fault lines in the Emperor’s cabinet and an aborted rebellion. Before that we hear the words honor and duty a little too often, as well as elaborate descriptions of the semi-divine status that Hirohito enjoyed in Japan before the war. The ritualistic aspects of Japanese culture take the drama out of the story; I wanted to be shown the different forces at play in Hirohito’s world instead of just hearing them recounted. The best scene in Emperor is the meeting between MacArthur and Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka); it’s the only time the Emperor is shown full-face; and the extent to which he knows MacArthur has the upper hand creates the film’s most affecting moment. The subject matter of Emperor is fascinating and it will continue to inspire works of history and fiction, but I wish this film had done a better job of letting us into the world it so respects.

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