A royal flop

A royal flop

Intriguing story carries too much dead weight

By Tim Pompey 03/14/2013


Emperor
Directed by Peter Webber
Starring: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune
1 hr. 46 mins.


This is a film that should have been great. An intriguing story line, excellent cast and a good director. Funny how you can have all the odds in your favor and still manage to miss.

 


Part of the problem is that the story gets split into two parts: one involving diplomacy and the other about lost love. The first story offers a lot of talk but eventually becomes compelling. The second feels like that gear-grinding noise you get when you don’t push the clutch in far enough.


I also think the film suffers from a Western attempt to explain the so-called mindset of the Japanese soldier. But even after a boatload of explanation, the story can’t seem to get past its own stereotypical thinking about the devotion of the warrior and the demureness of the geisha.


The backdrop to all this is the time period immediately after the atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the Japanese surrendered to Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones). MacArthur is being pressured by Washington to bring Emperor Hirohito to trial, perhaps even put him to death.


It turns out that MacArthur has a different take. He wants to avoid sparking a revolt. He would also like to restore Japan; more to the point, he would like people to know that he was responsible for restoring Japan. But in order to navigate some perilous political waters, he has to answer one important question:  Was the emperor in any way responsible for declaring war on the United States?


To get an answer, he assigns Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) to do the research. Fellers, who spent time in Japan before the war, is considered by MacArthur to be his top Japanese expert.


What MacArthur doesn’t know is that Fellers is also in love with a Japanese woman named Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), whom he met in college in the U.S. Fellers assumes his role with a double motive — to get as close as he can to Hirohito and to find Aya, hopefully alive.


If pulling these two tales together sounds like a stretch, it is. It needs to be handled as if both stories are part of a single whole. Instead, director Peter Webber (from Girl With the Pearl Earring) and his writers use the love story as a backdrop, and the political story as a diplomatic workshop. Only toward the end does the plot start to take on the tension it deserves throughout.


What’s most disappointing is that Aya, the woman who pushed against her own culture and bravely came to the U.S. as a transfer student, is portrayed as a Suzy Milquetoast in need of protection. We’ve seen this before. Quiet Japanese woman. Tough American male. Somehow, her portrayal seems out of balance. Only toward the end, when Fellers reads the letters she left for him, do we get a sense of her real strength and courage.


Emperor does offer some interesting insights into Japanese culture, but they come slowly as Fox engages in lengthy conversations with the emperor’s diplomats and learns about the complicated relationship in Japan among loyalty, politics and personal ambition.


This historical drama has its moments, particularly with Jones as the egotistical MacArthur. Credit as well an excellent cast of Japanese actors, including Masayoshi Haneda, Masatô Ibu and, even in his brief appearance, Takatarô Kataoka as the spitting image of the real Emperor.


If you’re interested in an important slice of Japanese American history, you might want to catch this film. As a drama and love story, however, it only works in fits and starts. There is a much better story behind this waiting to be told, perhaps by a Japanese director. But unfortunately, in this film, what should have been a battleship; turns out to be a mere tugboat.

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