One sentence synopsis: General Douglas MacArthur and his deputy Bonner Fellers must investigate the role of the Emperor of Japan in perpetrating war crimes in the aftermath of World War II.
Things Havoc liked: Tommy Lee Jones has gotten into the habit recently of playing himself in every movie he's in. Your tolerance for his antics will, of course, depend on how much you like his craggy, one-liner-spouting, no-nonsense Texas schtick, but I love Jones and largely everything he's ever been in. Yes, there are occasions when he turns to smarminess and camp, such as Blown Away, Batman Forever, or The Missing, but by and large, Jones' performances attract the best lines in the script, and even when he's hamming it up (Under Siege, anyone?), I can't help but smile. In Emperor, Jones has plainly decided that if he can do one egotistical American WWII General (his riotous send-up to Patton in 2011's Captain America), then he might as well go for the repeat and play Mr. Congeniality himself, General Douglas MacArthur.
As I'm sure everyone knows, at the end of WWII, MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of the American occupation forces in Japan, tasked with somehow rebuilding a country that had been both figuratively and literally atomized in a way few societies had ever been. Part of this task, of course, involved deciding what should be done with the Emperor of Japan, whose guilt or innocence in the crimes committed by Japan were of less importance, overall, than what his arrest or exoneration would mean politically, both in Japan and out of it. Though MacArthur himself wisely desired to leave the Emperor in place as a means of placating the national sensibility of Japan, the position in Washington was far more inclined towards vengeance or justice, depending on how you looked at it. MacArthur thus appointed one of his deputies, General Bonner Fellers, to investigate the role of the Emperor in starting and prosecuting the war, and to recommend what should be done with both the Emperor and the Imperial system itself.
To say this issue was complicated is understating the matter, and fortunately, the movie is not shy about diving into all of the complexities attendant involved in it. Generals and Field Marshals and High Chancellors of the Privy Council are identified and interviewed and interrogated in dizzying succession. Each one has his own perspective to bring to bear on just how the war began and who (or what) was responsible for the terrible things that happened within it. Our window into the investigation is General Fellers, played by Matthew Fox of Lost fame. I hated Lost (a TV show whose title adequately described the predicament of its own writing staff), and a cursory glance at Fox' movie career (his last two films were Speed Racer and Alex Cross) does not fill me with confidence. That said, Fox is at least decent here, playing a Japanophile returning to the land that long-fascinated him to find it in ashes at the hands of his own nation. Neither vitriolic nor apologetic, Fellers' conversations with the various officials he meets with as he tries to find some reason to exonerate the Emperor are the best parts of the film, particularly his conversations with General Kajima (Toshiyuki Nishida), a senior Japanese general staff officer whose self-conscious analysis of the Japanese cultural mindset is a highly perceptive exploration of what led Japan to do the things, war-related or otherwise, that it did.
Things Havoc disliked: I've had comments from readers of these reviews that they are tired of me getting on a soapbox and rambling about some political or historical issue that I felt was handled incorrectly in this film or that one. These people are encouraged to stop reading this review now.
No, I'm not about to condemn this film and all its works, far from it. Given the contentiousness of the subject matter, it actually does amazingly well in portraying the complexities of a worldwide war. But particularly given Japan's less than stellar history in facing up to the actions of its armed forces in WWII, there are still some issues here that need to be addressed. For one thing, while it's true that Pearl Harbor inflamed American opinion to a level not seen again until 9/11, it is not true that the war crimes tribunals in post-war Japan began and ended with culpability for the Pearl Harbor raid. Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack, and pissed a lot of people off, but it was not a war crime. The Bataan Death March, the indiscriminate massacre of POWs and civilians by the hundreds of thousands, these were the war crimes for which men hanged after the war, and to frame the discussion as one of America seeking vengeance for Pearl Harbor alone without ever mentioning these events is to show a very narrow interpretation of what actually happened in that war. Similarly, a flashback to before the war mentions that the Japanese went to war because of the American oil embargo, without mentioning the by then ten year war with China that Japan was mired in, the war that had already brought on the Rape of Nanking, the destruction of the US gunboat Panay, and which was the proximate cause of the oil embargo. Yes, American policy vis-a-vis Japan was hardly a model of reason and color-blindedness. Yes, Japanese officers immediately after WWII would likely have framed the discussion in exactly these terms. But none of that changes the fact that to describe the oil embargo as something the US "did to" Japan for no reason other than arrogance or racism is to completely shatter the truth of that war. And given the way that war is typically presented in Japan nowadays, that's not a neutral act.
But to return to the subject of the movie itself, the problem here is that the reason none of the above is discussed is because the film has to make room for a love story, told entirely through flashback, between our main character and a Japanese woman he meets at college a full decade before the war. This woman, played by Eriko Hatsune, serves literally no purpose in the movie other than to provide a hackneyed attempt at personal tragedy within the context of the massive, overwhelming catastrophe that has befallen Japan, as Fellers searches for her in the aftermath of the war's devastation and confronts the fact that the war he participated in may have killed the woman he loved. Tragic though this sounds on paper, it's never addressed in the film in anything but the most perfunctory, insensitive manner, as Fellers howls in agony about his lost love to Japanese adjutants whose families, cities, and entire nation have been burnt to ashes. Worse yet, though Hatsune does her best with the material she's given, Fox has no idea how to play a romantic lead, and comes across sounding like a whiny teenager annoyed that the world is not reshaping itself to suit his wishes. Given that Fellers has been established as an expert on and aficionado of Japanese culture from the get-go, and that his sympathies lean clearly towards sparing the Emperor if humanly possible (this much is established within the first five minutes), there is simply no need to occupy a third of the movie's run-time with this useless subplot.
Final thoughts: I sort of admire Emperor more than I like it. The decision to spare Hirohito (spoilers?) and retain the Imperial system, albeit in the limited, constitutional form it occupies today, was one of the single most important moments of the post-war era, and MacArthur's stint as governor of occupied Japan remains, in my opinion at least, his finest hour. Towards the end, as the movie builds up to the famous meeting of Hirohito and MacArthur, from whence the photograph of the Emperor and the General emerged, it finally begins to gain some momentum, and build towards a sense of actual historical importance. And yet the movie overall seems like a wasted opportunity to actually delve into the issues that surrounded the war and its aftermath. Maybe it's impossible to fully explore a topic like this in 98 minutes, and I've read reviews that complained about the dryness of the subject and the lack of any human material to lighten it up. But these reviews of mine are not some objective marker of quality, but my reaction to the film, and I found that I could have stood a lot more complexity, and a lot less obligatory-love-story.
I've been accused before of filling my reviews with too much pro-American nationalistic sabre-rattling. I will, no doubt, be accused of this again. But it's not really a pro or anti-American slant that I object to here, but the fact that the causes and course of the greatest war in history are by necessity going to be a highly complicated subject. That doesn't mean that a movie of finite duration is evil for presenting a simplified view of the subject. But neither does it mean that you can get away with pretending the simplified version is all there is to it.
Final Score: 6.5/10