What is it about Japan that inspires Western filmmakers to make such boring dramas about the place? You could say that Westerners don’t understand Japan, but then look at all the Hollywood movies that have been made in Italy and ask yourself whether those films understand Italy in any deeper way. No, I think it’s just that many Westerners associate Japanese culture with classicism, restraint, and decorum and think that movies about Japan must be as meticulous as a tea ceremony. Of course, that’s not an inaccurate take on Japan, but that side of the culture coexists with anime, gangster movies, and a competing tradition of wackiness and experimentation that too many Westerners ignore. An overdose of good taste and politeness isn’t the only problem facing Emperor, a movie that follows in the staid footsteps of Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai. However, it may be the most significant one.
The film picks up in 1945, shortly after Japan’s surrender. As part of the occupying American forces, Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) arrives with Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) as a special aide with extensive experience in Asia. Fellers has been given an impossible job: a full investigation into whether Emperor Hirohito should be arrested and tried as a war criminal, the assignment to be carried out in a scant 10 days. While wrapped up in that task, Fellers also conducts his own search for Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), the girl he fell in love with when they were attending college in America years earlier and who was last heard of teaching school in Shizuoka. In both cases, he discovers that finding anyone in a war-torn country involves quite a bit of legwork.
The story is based on Shiro Okamoto’s novel His Majesty’s Salvation, which I haven’t had a chance to read. The structure of Vera Blasi and David Klass’ script is built on Fellers’ delicate maneuverings as he alternately pleads with and threatens Japanese politicians, military brass, and imperial staffers to try to assess the emperor’s degree of responsibility. Even more complicated, MacArthur has his thumb on the scale of Fellers’ investigation; despite pressure from Washington for a trial, the supreme Allied commander knows that a trial will only incite violence and impede American rebuilding efforts.
This material needed a director comfortable with procedurals, someone who could maintain a crisp pace, give us a sense of the compressed time frame, and keep us keenly aware of what the investigators know and what they need to find out at any given time. Unfortunately, Peter Webber is not that director. The British filmmaker behind Girl With a Pearl Earring is much more interested in lyricism, pictorialism, and romance. While he creates a few pretty pictures, mostly from the golden-hued flashbacks depicting Fellers and Aya falling in love, he loses all sense of momentum and dramatic thrust. Even the romance isn’t done that well, thanks to the lack of chemistry between Fox and Hatsune.
You take your small pleasures where you can find them in a movie like this. Toshiyuki Nishida cuts an imposing figure as Aya’s severe military-officer father in the prewar sequences, then looks convincingly broken when Fellers catches up to him after the war. Even better is Jones, who does justice both to the conscientious MacArthur who wants to rebuild Japan without violence and to the vain, publicity-hungry MacArthur who nurses presidential ambitions. Emperor isn’t nearly as good a historical drama as Lincoln, but Jones’ work here is even more impressive, playing a flamboyant leader who fully recognizes the absurdities of military life and finds humor in his subordinates’ discomfort when he drops the next big pile of work on their desks.
Still, that isn’t nearly enough to prevent this movie from being suffocated by its own good taste and self-seriousness. Emperor may well appeal to World War II buffs and Japanophiles, but it ultimately has very little to offer anyone else.
Starring Matthew Fox, Eriko Hatsune, and Tommy Lee Jones. Directed by Peter Webber. Written by Vera Blasi and David Klass, based on Shiro Okamoto’s novel. Rated PG-13.