TORONTO – “I don’t need a history lesson, your Excellency,” says Matthew Fox as U.S. General Bonner Fellers to a Japanese diplomat in Emperor. However, the filmmakers behind this didactic compressed epic clearly believe the audience does. An earnest retelling of the deliberation over the fate of Emperor Hirohito following his country’s World War II surrender, the handsome production is honorably intentioned but stodgy, padded out with a wan romantic subplot that struggles to generate emotional heat.
Picked up out of Toronto by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions for the U.S., Emperor is directed with polished period reconstruction and an admirable bid for cross-cultural sensitivity by Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring). Its main selling point will be a wily depiction by Tommy Lee Jones of General Douglas MacArthur as a vainglorious tactician who tosses about the title of Supreme Commander with relish. Never one to miss a photo opportunity, his underlying political ambitions give the flinty character an intriguing veiled agenda while maintaining a core fiber of integrity.
Not so interesting, unfortunately, is Fox’s Gen. Fellers, a real-life military intelligence officer and Japanese specialist, saddled for too much of David Klass and Vera Blasi’s plodding script with the onerous role of exposition bitch. The physical trappings often suggest an attempt to muster the old-fashioned sweep of, say, David Lean’s historical dramas, with ceremonial grace notes that ape classic Japanese cinema. But slathered atop almost every scene, along with Alex Heffe’s solemn orchestral score, is Bonner’s dour voiceover, a film-noirish device that stretches Emperor in one stylistic direction too many.
With Washington still fuming over the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the people of American-occupied Japan living among death and rubble but fiercely loyal to Hirohito, the question of what to do with the country’s self-professed deity is a delicate one. Mindful of this, while overseeing the restoration of order to the devastated nation, MacArthur assigns Fellers to conduct an urgent investigation into the Emperor’s culpability.
Should he be tried as a war criminal and executed, or exonerated as a figurehead outside of political and military domains? As the screenplay tells us with numbing insistence, nothing in Japan is simple black and white. A chasm of gray separates how things may appear from how they really are.
While Fox tries to invest his character with human dimensions, much of his screen time is spent in the dramatic equivalent of history-class discussions, defining cultural distinctions, or in repetitive face time with interchangeable Japanese power players. One after the other, they keep telling him, “This is a nation of contradictions,” or variations on that theme. We hear over and over that the Japanese operate according to different codes of honor from Americans; that devotion, loyalty and obedience are essential qualities; that they are a people capable of great self-sacrifice. Got it.
Bonner’s investigation is interwoven with flashbacks to a thwarted relationship with college exchange student Aya (Eriko Hatsune), which initially drew him to Japan before the war. The daughter of a semi-noble family, she left America abruptly to return home. When Bonner tracks her down, working as a schoolteacher whose English students are dwindling in number as the army breeds hatred of foreigners, the writers fail to carve a substantial place for her in the story. She tells Bonner early on that she’s considered too outspoken for a Japanese girl, but we see no evidence of this.
Despite some promising scenes involving Aya’s uncle (Toshiyuki Nishida), a General formerly at the Japanese embassy in D.C., the central romance is not much more than a series of longing looks and swooning smiles. It’s no more effective when it creeps into the narrative mainframe as Bonner and his driver (Masayoshi Haneda) try to track down Aya in 1945. A similarly half-cooked strand follows the efforts of another U.S. military official (Colin Moy) to discredit Fellers by exposing his past connections to Japan.
Klass and Blasi’s screenplay doesn’t tread lightly in hinting at parallels between the U.S. occupation of a foreign territory back then, and those of today. The ramifications of decisions made during regime changes, the potential for “quagmire,” and the blurry distinction between conqueror and liberator all point unsubtly to a pattern of global intervention that endures in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s also an Important Speech from one Japanese character who questions why his country was so reviled for invading China when the Americans, British, Dutch and French had been swiping territories forever.
When it stops preaching, the film is on surer footing, even if for a drama in which peace hangs in the balance, the stakes never seem very high. Still, though the approach is somewhat by-the-numbers, the 1945 scenes in which Fellers slowly cracks the intricate web of secrecy around the Emperor work well enough.
Despite his internalized conflict and corrosive sense of loss, Fox’s character doesn’t invite much emotional engagement, but that seems less the actor’s fault than the script’s. Jones’ animating presence is too sparsely employed, but the film does gain both traction and tension in the concluding scenes as MacArthur forces Fellers to engineer a face-to-face with Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka).
Production design by Grant Major and costumes by Ngila Dickson are impressively detailed on what was likely a limited budget by Hollywood standards. Shot in New Zealand, the film benefits in visual command from Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography – by turns ashen or awash in tones of burnished darkness for 1945 and with a softer look for the mid-‘30s scenes. Too bad Emperor’s thematic range is not so textured.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala; Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Fellers Film, Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment
Cast: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune, Toshiyuki Nishida, Masayoshi Haneda, Colin Moy, Isao Natsuyagi, Takataro Kataoka
Director: Peter Webber
Screenwriters: David Klass, Vera Blasi
Producers: Yoko Narahashi, Gary Foster, Eugene Nomura, Russ Krasnoff
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Grant Major
Music: Alex Heffes
Costume designer: Ngila Dickson
Editor: Chris Plummer
Visual effects supervisor: Julian Dimsey
No rating, 106 minutes