Some of the most complex and ambivalent war stories happen around the edges of combat, especially in its aftermath, when officials try to resolve messy moral questions so that everyone can move on. Emperor, set during the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II, finds the American military attempting to determine whether or not Emperor Hirohito should be tried as a war criminal, and weighing what either decision will mean for the future of the two countries. If the answer is yes, it will strain the fragile truce; if it is no, the American government and people will be dissatisfied.
As Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) assigns Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) to the investigation. Fellers’s task proves nearly impossible, as few Japanese officers consent to speak with him, and those who do are unable to offer unequivocal evidence. The film’s attempts to dramatize this compelling but cerebral dilemma and stretch it to feature length are uneven, alternating scenes of great power with dry patches. A heavily fictionalized romantic subplot that finds Fellers searching for Aya (Eriko Hatsune), the Japanese woman he fell in love with years earlier, plays better than it should, but scenes in which Fellers gets into bar fights and stumbles drunkenly through the rain are transparent attempts to juice up the story.
Jones looks nothing like MacArthur, but the filmmakers have wisely elected not to bury him in transformative makeup; they’ve just given him a corncob pipe and let him have at it. With his voice (dropping his usual Texas drawl for plummier diction), posture, and craggy face, Jones sidesteps impersonation and builds his own MacArthur from the ground up — a weary man beneath his arrogant, intimidating persona. The performance is so good it overshadows Fox’s as Fellers, the real hero of the story and the audience’s figure of identification. Faced with the challenge of carrying a subdued leading role against a flamboyant supporting player, Fox tries hard, and the effort — which involves a lot of blinking, squinting, and head-shaking — is distracting.
Emperor takes an American perspective (albeit a Japanophilic one, via Fellers) of the cross-cultural, psychological conflict that followed the military one. But its keenest observations are made by its Japanese characters, representatives of a proud nation coming to grips with defeat, who are all too aware that “war crimes” are whatever the victors say they are. Visually, its strongest moments are those that portray the lingering scars of war — bombed-out buildings, heaps of broken-down cars — more eloquently than the clichéd narration. All of this suggests that the film’s insurmountable flaw is not that its story is uncinematic, but that it’s presented from the wrong point of view.