Emperor Review

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After Japan’s surrender, General MacArthur (Jones) arrives in Tokyo to take charge, entrusting General Bonner Fellers (Fox) with gathering evidence over Hirohito’s possible war crimes. But Fellers’ own past may compromise his mission.


You can’t fault the effort director Peter Webber has put into creating a Tokyo carpet-bombed into submission at the end of World War II — here is a stunning ground zero of ruin and desperation, where you can still catch the stench of bodies rotting beneath the rubble. Civilisation has been peeled to the bone, a pointed echo of the still greater horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It makes for a powerful atmosphere, both vindictive and tragic, where life has no value. What, for instance, might a murder mystery mean in such a twilight realm? Instead, Webber’s film chews with noble but unimaginative thoroughness over a large helping of political drama with a side salad of romance.

Alongside his strangled attempts to pinpoint evidence that Hirohito was complicit in the Japanese war machine, Fellers (Matthew Fox) sets out on a private (and symbolic) quest to locate a lost love (Eriko Hatsune, frail as a flower) established in rose-tinted flashbacks, a brand of dreamy, interracial enchantment deployed to more moving effect in Snow Falling On Cedars and Come See The Paradise. Fox strains to give Fellers some punch, but the script burdens him in obvious ways. He’s a brooding flux of conqueror guilt, aching heart and join-the-dots voice-over man. He picks drunken fights, hoping to be beaten up. He gees-up his team with passionate speeches championing the truth. He’s Jack from Lost all over.

Meanwhile, the elusive Emperor remains concealed in his palace, still a living god to his battered citizens. To arrest him could inflame riots on the shattered streets, but back home America wants a finger pointed for Pearl Harbour, and hereby hangs what drama there is. The disentanglement of justice from revenge is not the most thrilling of themes, an ethical knot not helped by Fellers’ attempts to wheedle out evidence being met with meaningless gnomic knockbacks mostly amounting to “you do not understand what it is to be Japanese”. Oh, those inscrutable foreigners.

The film only rises to the occasion when we cut to headquarters, where Tommy Lee Jones, regaling us with another firecracker of a supporting turn, holds court as military legend General Douglas MacArthur with a pipe the size of his ego. The gag being he is styling himself an emperor. Catching a hint of MacArthur’s Texan drawl, he suggests a craftily stage-managed pomposity disguising diplomatic guile and, perhaps, compassion. He would make a much better movie.

Good intentions, vivid setting and TLJ on top form do not make up for a lack of anything truly compelling.