Review: Emperor

October 16, 2013

Emperor is a film with grand ambitions, an earnest heart and a slightly wobbly backbone.

It centres on General Bonner Fellers, a Japanophile in the wake of World War II tasked with, quite literally, deciding the fate of a nation. Should the US put on trial and execute emperor Hirohito – a man considered a deity by his still-loyal subjects – for his part in Japan’s military action? If they do, hawkish Washington politicians and a baying American populace will be abated, but Japan would face almost certain revolt, leading to a lengthy – and costly – occupation (note the contemporary parallels).

The politicking General MacArthur, played by Tommy Lee Jones with a level of persistent vexation that borders on camp, wants some proof before he makes up his mind. He’s a rational man, you see, maybe even rational enough to be President one day.

Fellers (played by Lost’s Matthew Fox), the thinking man’s general to MacArthur’s bloke’s bloke, tries his best to unravel the days and hours leading up to Japan’s entry and exit from the war, in the face of a complete lack of evidence. When one Japanese politician is asked for his take on events, he sings a poem. When Fellers looks bemused, he offers to sing it again. Equal to the challenge, Fellers decides the key lies in the Japanese psyche, which is a stroke of luck, because that’s exactly what his thesis was on.

It’s let down by an unnecessary love story that shows little faith in the audience’s ability to swallow the bitter pill of recrimination without the odd shot of a soft-focus beauty. The “Westerners are from Mars and Japanese are from Venus” pop psychology is also dealt with rather clumsily.

But the political intrigue, painstaking reconstruction of post-war Japan and two assured central performances lift Emperor above its flaws.

First published in City A.M.