It’s impossible to watch Peter Webber’s “Emperor” without seeing it in a modern-day context. The film is set in the aftermath of World War II as the American military (led by Gen. Douglas McArthur) begins the process of rebuilding a shattered Japan. After more than 10 years of fighting a war on terror against an enemy that is largely faceless and decentralized, the notion of sitting across from a former enemy in a civilized context seems almost nostalgic.
Based on real events, “Emperor” focuses on one specific issue connected to Japanese reconstruction: what to do with its emperor, Hirohito. In the aftermath of Japan’s surrender, many of its top military personnel and politicians were arrested to face trial for war crimes, but the ambiguous behavior of Japan’s emperor (and the mysterious nature of the culture that surrounds him) makes his role in the war unclear.
Matthew Fox (TV’s “Lost”) plays Gen. Bonner Fellers, the man charged with investigating the emperor’s role in starting the war. Feller’s verdict is critical: A guilty emperor could be hanged as a war criminal and may trigger a revolt; a pardon could infuriate those demanding justice for Pearl Harbor and the blood shed in the Pacific.
The general is flagged for this duty because of his background and experience with the Japanese culture. Unfortunately, this experience also includes a long-term love affair with a Japanese schoolteacher named Aya, who may or may not have survived the war. Through flashbacks, we watch as the increasing tensions between the two countries start as an uncomfortable roadblock to their relationship, then ultimately threaten to shatter it altogether when tensions become war.
Fans of Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in “Lincoln” will be happy to see him here in the role of Gen. McArthur. His surly energy is a welcome counter to the dour tone offered by Fox and others in the cast, especially in key scenes early and late in the film.
“Emperor” isn’t a slow film, but it takes its time, focusing more on the nuance of the investigation and the deconstruction of its social message instead of pushing for high drama. It raises questions without pointing too harsh a finger, and the audience comes away seeing the good and the bad of both adversaries. A final scene between McArthur and Hirohito leaves the audience with a sense of why the countries were able to join efforts so effectively in the coming decades.
“Emperor” is often bleak and dreary, showing the burned-out aftermath of bombings and the carnage of war, but it is not a graphic film, and is mostly appropriate for a family audience. A single use of the “F-word” early on in the film merits its PG-13 rating, along with some other scattered profanity, but the violence is fairly minimal, and the sensuality of the love story is very discreet.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.