Portraying a little known but pivotal part of world history, Emperor tells the story of the audacious actions of General Douglas MacArthur as he sought to maintain peace in postwar Japan. With many of Japan's government figures already executed for war crimes, MacArthur had to decide what role Emperor Hirohito played in the war and if he too should be put to death. The honorary and revered head of the proud nation, the Emperor was a figure shrouded in mystery; even after the war ended he remained closed away behind his palace walls. No Americans were allowed to meet or even question the man. Faced with deciding the future of Japan, MacArthur (played by Tommy Lee Jones) enlists General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) to covertly investigate the emperor and determine his fate.
With an engaging story, Emperor is well told by director Peter Webber. However, like with Webber's last film The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Webber doesn't particularly push the envelope visually or offer a fresh take on the WWII genre. It doesn't, for instance, have the sweeping beauty or crispness of a film like The Last Samurai (which understandably had a much larger budget, but was produced by one of this film's producers, Yoko Narahashi).
The performances feel about the same. Matthew Fox gives one if his strongest performances to date, but he doesn't seem like the first pick for this kind of role. Tommy Lee Jones pulls a bit of a Morgan Freeman here and sort of phones it in (still love you, Morgan!). A lot of his lines seemed like they were fed to him moments before rolling. He's still a great actor, but a transformative role this was not.
Throughout Fellers’ tense investigation, the film also interweaves the story of his lost love, a school teacher from a nearby town who first drew him to Japan years earlier. While adding depth to Fox's character, this storyline feels a bit unfulfilling and somewhat contrived for the purposes of the film. Why can't he look for this woman in a week once his investigation is done? The urgency for his search could have been strengthened.
Emperor is not a must-see film, but it does tell a unique story. It's amazing how one man wielded so much power in deciding the future of a country and a culture he knew little about. How would Japan's culture have changed had they chosen a different course of action? I would have loved to seen a more dynamic cinematic approach to the material, but the product here is solid.
Review by Some Other FilmJabber Guy
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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