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by George Sax
Biographer William Manchester called Douglas MacArthur “American Caesar,” but the title of the new movie Emperor, in which he’s portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, doesn’t refer to him. That emperor is Hirohito, who reigned in Japan during the Second World War. Emperor is actually about the American occupation of the defeated Japan in the immediate aftermath of that war and an investigation of Hirohito’s possible guilt for its start and war crimes committed by the Japanese government.
It tells its sentimentalized version of this story through the rather fictionalized experiences of a real person, American General Bonner Fellers, (Matthew Fox), a member of Allied Supreme Commander MacArthur’s Japan staff. The movie has MacArthur tasking the youthful Fellers with running this investigation because of his knowledge of the country. He’s given 10 days to decide whether the Emperor should be charged and tried like Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, or exonerated. (Coincidentally, John Willpers, the Army intelligence officer who interrupted Tojo’s suicide attempt and arrested him, contrary to the movie’s telling, died only days ago.)
There may be some semblance of historical actuality to the movie’s narrative, but for the most part, it isn’t very persuasive. A ponderously banal voiceover by Fox tells us, “The worst war in history is over. Now is the time to win the fragile peace,” underlined by surging, major-key music. Emperor pitches itself to the audience by making the young general a man with a personal mission: finding Aya (Eriko Hatsune), the Japanese girl he loved and lost before the war. This tragically intended tale is told in rose-hued flashbacks.
Fox’s role doesn’t provide him much to do except appear manfully earnest and sensitive. Jones’s MacArthur is delivered in his now-familiar sardonically declamatory style. This Supreme Commander is a theatrically coarse-tongued figure, autocratically self-assured and disdainful of the civilian officials in Washington. It may be the most accurate part of the picture.
There’s a message, of course, one having something to do with the need to make peace as well as war, but it’s difficult to imagine what audience the filmmakers envisioned for this stilted, draggy movie.
Watch the trailer for Emperor
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v12n10 (Week of Thursday, March 7) > Film Reviews > Emperor
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