Though a startling human tragedy in real time, World War II has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving to Hollywood. From the patriotic (Saving Private Ryan) to the preposterous (Inglourious Basterds), the “war to end all wars” continues to serve as inspiration for each new generation of filmmakers, who come along and shine a light on some heretofore unexplored aspect of the conflict.
Such is the case with Emperor, which delves into post-war Japan in the days immediately following the country’s surrender to its nuclear-armed foe, the good ol’ U.S.A. The film begins with General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and his crew landing in Tokyo and setting up the occupation of the country. MacArthur’s first order of business: figuring out whether or not to arrest and hang Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) for initiating the attack on Pearl Harbor.
MacArthur doesn’t sort this out for himself, of course. Instead, he assigns General Fellers (Matthew Fox), an expert on Japan, to do the legwork. Fellers visited the country before the war; he speaks the language, studied the culture, and seems the exact right man for the job. But he also has an ulterior motive: Fellers is searching for a lost Japanese love (Eriko Hatsune) that he met years before while in college, one that he fears has been killed during the long months of bombing.
With the help of his assigned driver Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda), Fellers interviews Japanese military brass and governmental higher-ups, leveraging his knowledge of the country and its culture in the search. Fellers knows that the best way to get cooperation from the Japanese is to let them know that, rather than engaging in some rush to judgment, he’s trying to save the Emperor’s life. It takes a while, but the plan works, leading to a sit-down between MacArthur and Hirohito that proves entertaining and surprising, in that the two men don’t act anything like we might suspect.
Fox is best known as Jack from Lost (my wife loves telling me that he’ll actually always be “Charlie from Party of Five,” but I digress …), and Emperor shares its structure with the hit ABC TV show. As Fellers investigates Hirohito in real time, the movie repeatedly flashes back to happier and not-so-happier days to tell the story of Fellers’ relationship with the Japanese girl. I kept waiting for Sayid or Kate to show up and attempt to get “General Fellers” to wake up and return to the island.
My own Lost-fixation aside, Emperor is a solid, low-key effort from director Peter Webber (The Girl with the Pearl Earing). The locations and set design are well done and had me believing these characters were moving around a completely destroyed Japan. Fox is good, though the film only allows him a few notes to play — mostly anger, disgust, sadness and resignation. Tommy Lee Jones shows up sporadically to chew some scenery as MacArthur, though I appreciated his reserved playing of the film’s later scenes, including that meeting with Hirohito.
Emperor is ultimately a minor work about a moment in history that is more a footnote than anything. I suspect the remaining members of the “Greatest Generation” will find it enthralling (my dear departed Grandpa Bardi would have loved it), as will the history buffs and World war II-philes who will delight in the recreation of several moments that are well known thanks to some very famous photos. I enjoyed Emperor, but I wouldn’t go to war over it.