There is a marvelously intriguing and dramatic story to be told about the final days of Japanese emperor Hirohito’s supreme reign over his defeated country after World War II, and the debate over whether the Allied Forces under General Douglas MacArthur should declare Hirohito a war criminal.
Sadly, despite a wonderful performance by Tommy Lee Jones as a cocky and unabashedly ambitious MacArthur, the new film “Emperor” fails miserably to effectively tell this true life story with the dramatic heft that the historic events so deservedly merit. Instead, director Peter Webber turns this pivotal moment in world history into a poorly told melodrama that’s a combination of a Cliffs Notes summary of the riveting story that could have been told; muddied up by the inclusion of a totally unnecessary and abysmally distracting tragic love story.
“Emperor” begins in the days after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that led to Japan’s conflicted, yet desperate decision to finally surrender. The Japanese capitol of Tokyo is a firebombed wasteland filled with miles of charred ruins, smoldering rubble, ashes and the exhausted, hungry and emotionally demoralized remnants of the it’s human population.
Arriving amid this devastation is a confident, swaggering General MacArthur ( Jones ) tasked with not only bringing a smooth transition as the country’s conquering occupation force; but also, rounding up as many of the nation’s key military leaders and advisers to potentially be charged with war crimes before they commit suicide to save face under the Japanese code of honor.
Paramount among the latter goal is to determine the Emperor’s role in the war and whether he should also be tried, and executed, as a war criminal. This determination is a supremely difficult decision to make since the Emperor is seen by the Japanese people quite literally as a god. MacArthur must decide within 10 days dictated by Washington whether to execute the Emperor and risk a renewed uprising of the leader’s devoted national following or completely exonerate him from complicity and raising the ire of a world seeking vengeance for Japan’s role in the war.
MacArthur tasks one of his team, real life General Bonner Fellers ( Matthew Fox ) to investigate those connected to the Emperor and report back whether the Emperor should be tried or not.
This quest for the truth alone should have been rich enough fodder for a compelling exposition of an historic real life event whose potentially ill-chosen result could have changed the world as we know it. However, “Emperor” suffers from two major flaws; a tragically superficial screenplay of events begging for a substantive narrative and the amateurish acting skills of Matthew Fox.
Emperor’s storyline as written by Vera Blasi and David Klass glosses over the details, machinations and complexities of determining the Emperor’s guilt or innocence with scenes that repetitively evoke the enigma that was Japan’s code of honor at the time. We are constantly told things are not as black or white as they seem, that there are only shades of grey. Such cliched platitudes may play well on paper; but they serve little to explain the motivations of the characters nor make for an entertaining film.
However, more egregious is the inclusion of a sub plot involving the pre-war college romance between Colonel Fellers and Aya, a Japanese teacher he fell in love with; only to be separated from her in Japan on the eve of the war. Throughout Fellers’ search for the truth about the Emperor, the narrative is repetitively derailed by his concurrent search for Aya’s whereabouts and fate. More annoyingly, the constant flashbacks to their budding relationship before the war only serve to distract from the far more interesting story of the Emperor and the role of his advisers in the days leading up to the war and the ultimate heart-rending decision for the Japanese to surrender.
One climatic scene shedding light on the relatively little known true life failed coup d’ etat known to history as the “Kyujo Incident” is given only a few passing moments on screen. The screenplay plays this revelatory trump card which details a coup attempt by hawkish elements of the Japanese military against the Emperor himself at his palace just prior to his decision to announce Japan’s surrender, as almost an afterthought. Instead, we are subjected to scene after scene in detail of Feller’s inner regret over losing Aya and his search for her amid the decimated populace of war ravaged Tokyo.
To make matters worse, this melodrama is laid upon the truly feeble dramatic shoulders of Matthew Fox. Fox, best known for years on the small-screen hit, “Lost” should have stayed lost on the unknown TV island rather than sully the big-screen story of Japan’s surrender or Colonel Fellers’ role in this search for the truth. His time on-screen is uncomfortable to watch and he seems woefully miscast as a young General faced with resolving such a formidable task.
Fortunately, the scenery-nibbling but delightfully colorful performance of Tommy Lee Jones as MacArthur saves the day and infuses life into every scene that he appears within this film. Otherwise, “Emperor’s” story falls into a coma whenever the wooden acting of Fox is on display.
Director Webber does get some reluctant points for visually depicting the vast devastation of Japan’s capitol city effectively enough. Save for previous films, newsreels and countless photos, we’ve often seen the wartime ruination of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the primary damage done to the Japanese homeland. “Emperor” at least provides a glimpse that the nation suffered significant scars and damage to it’s landscape and people that extended beyond the two well documented historic atomic bomb targets.
Still, kudos to the set designers, CGI whiz kids and Tommy Lee Jones’ wonderful performance is not enough to save “Emperor” from falling far short of it’s promise. This is a complex story and compelling historic fact watered down to “Little Golden Book” simplicity and flavored with the saccharine of a Harlequin romance novel.
Tim Estiloz is a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. – Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.