Peter Webber’s "Emperor" offers a look back at a part of history many are not familiar with, and it gives us the pleasure of watching Tommy Lee Jones portraying General MacArthur. However, it is undone by a love story which takes away from the plot which is far more interesting.
“Emperor” is one of those movies that come across as a frustratingly missed opportunity. It’s the first contemporary Hollywood film set during the U.S.-led occupation of Japan at the close of World War II, and it uncovers a part of history that many people are not fully aware. But in the process of delving into the subject of whether a world leader should be punished for crimes against humanity, “Emperor” gets bogged down with a love story which takes away from the movie it could have been.
The story begins with an airplane descending into a Japan that has been decimated by atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and the country has since announced its surrender. Coming out of that plane is General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) who has been tasked by President Harry S. Truman to restore order in Japan and prepare the country for democratic elections (sound familiar?). But the one big problem MacArthur has to contend with before any of this can happen is of what to do with Emperor Hirohito (Takatarô Kataoka); should this man be made to stand trial for brutal war crimes, or is there another way of moving Japan forward without having to do that?
MacArthur ends up assigning General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) to find out if Hirohito was in anyway responsible for war crimes that were carried out, and if he was the one who ordered the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. The scenes where Fellers does his investigation and gathers evidence from survivors and Japanese military officers are among the film’s most fascinating moments. We all know how World War II ended, but it’s these specific details about this operation that are very illuminating because we never got to read about them in history books.
But it turns out that Fellers has an ulterior motive for going to Japan; he wants to search for his long lost love Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese school teacher whom he met and fell in love with years before. There are flashbacks where we see how their relationship started and of how it eventually brought Fellers to Japan and it proves to be a good device to show the cultural differences between it and America. At the same time the romance subplot really just slows the whole movie down, and I found myself getting bored. Had the movie focused more on the investigation into the Emperor’s activities, it would have been much better.