As well as making the critically acclaimed GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, Peter Webber has a long history in documentary making, something which shows in his latest feature film EMPEROR.
When General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) is appointed “Supreme Leader” of the US forces in post-war Japan, he is given two main tasks: the rebuilding of a country ravaged by war and nuclear destruction, and the bringing to justice of the nation’s war criminals. MacArthur, who harbours ambitions towards the Presidency of the United States, seems to believe himself more than capable of the former, while the latter he delegates to Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), the resident Japan expert on his staff. Before the war he travelled across Japan, falling in love with both the country and Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese student he met at his college back home.
The job of tracking down the high ranking members of the Japanese government believed to have been involved in war crimes soon becomes an investigation into whether or not Emperor Hirohito himself should be arrested and tried. The American government and her people want to see him hang for his part in the war. MacArthur, realising the likelihood of an uprising should the adored Emperor be convicted, tries to engineer a way for himself to remain blameless.
it is the film’s apparent preoccupation with being even-handed that is, in the end, its partial undoing
There is always a risk with historical dramas such as EMPEROR, particularly those from Hollywood, that they will present a revisionist or reductionist view of history, and especially war; all too often portraying America and Americans as morally unambiguous heroes whose motivation is entirely honourable. In EMPEROR (jointly funded by American and Japanese money) director Webber is anything but biased, giving the audience a relatively restrained view of American involvement that is neither chest-thumping nor particularly patriotic. Oddly though, it is the film’s apparent preoccupation with being even-handed that is, in the end, its partial undoing.
Conversations between Fox’s character and the Japanese officials he interviews as part of his investigation are too obvious, carrying a sense that they are explaining to the audience how both sides did terrible things in the war and that neither one was truly worse than the other. This has the strange effect of sanitising the war and its after-effects, as the excesses of the conflict have been removed so that we are left with an astonishingly well-crafted recreation of a destroyed Tokyo, but no real sense of the impact its total annihilation has had on its people.
The performances by Jones and Fox are beautifully restrained, unusually so for two big stars leading a film of this size, and nicely in keeping with a film whose subject is so influenced by Japanese culture. The interesting cinematography shows an unusual side of Japan at an fascinating moment in its history. The central romance between Fellers and Aya is engaging, even if her character is disappointingly two dimensional and formulaic; she’s very much the ethereal flower with the strong spirit we have seen too often before. Eriko Hatsune makes the most of the part though, and the conclusion to that element of the story is at least unexpected.
EMPEROR is a perfectly enjoyable film but, as with all historical dramas, so much of the interest onscreen is derived from the details of the events and the history of this fascinating country, rather than from the tacked on love story. The film lives or dies on its accuracy and honesty with those events – something which, for wholly unusual (and very un-Hollywood) reasons, it is hard to completely trust in EMPEROR.