'Emperor' offers an unsatisfying history lesson

Matthew Fox as Gen. Bonner Fellers, working on Douglas MacArthur's staff.
Matthew Fox as Gen. Bonner Fellers, working on Douglas MacArthur's staff. (KIRSTY GRIFFIN)
Posted: March 08, 2013

Postwar Japan. Tokyo in ruins. U.S. soldiers arriving to take charge.

"Let's show them some good old-fashioned American swagger," barks Douglas MacArthur, the five-star general in command of rebuilding the nation he has just destroyed, as he and his officers make their way from the air base to their new HQ. Tommy Lee Jones, in baggy Army browns, puffing on an extra-long corncob pipe, does his best to approximate the storied military man.

In Emperor, MacArthur and his officers must bring the Japanese leaders to justice - and decide whether Emperor Hirohito, their godlike leader, should be put on trial as a war criminal. If he is, it could start a revolt against the occupying force. If the U.S. lets Hirohito go unscathed, there could be political ramifications back home.

It's a moral conundrum, but it's only part of the story in director Peter Webber's ( Girl With a Pearl Earring) rather stiff and unsatisfying history lesson of a movie. Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), one of MacArthur's most-trusted aides, had fallen in love with a Japanese exchange student before the war, and now, here in Tokyo, he is obsessed with finding her - to the point of clouding his judgment, and the decision he has been tasked with: determining Hirohito's fate.

Filled with dreamy flashbacks of the budding romance between Bonner and Aya (Eriko Hatsune) - the college dance, the walks in a bamboo grove, meeting her parents in a house in Japan's countryside - and with jeep rides across the A-bombed wasteland of a city where 100,000 citizens were killed, Emperor offers an uneasy mix of schmaltz, angst, horror, and intrigue. It doesn't help that at the center of all this is Fox (this is Fellers' story, not MacArthur's). There's no arguing that he is an actor both earnest and handsome, but Fox is also an actor of limited range and depth. A thin, schematic screenplay gives him even less to work with.

And with a melodramatic romance piled atop the rubble, how accurate is Emperor's depiction of events, and the portrait of a country and its culture? We are told that Japan is a place of contradictions, that there is a word for the way things appear, and another for the way things really are. That if you understand devotion, you can understand Japan.

The epigrams fly, but the movie never really takes off.


Emperor ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Peter Webber. With Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune, and Kaori Momoi. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.

Running time: 1 hour, 46 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, war, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

   

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