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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.