Emperor (Lionsgate, PG-13)

emperor2013 75This serious and sincere film is more for those who are intrigued by the history than those seeking dramatic fireworks.


emperor2013 500

Emperor explores a little-examined bit of World War II history: determining the Emperor of Japan’s degree of guilt for the war. It has to be admired for finding a fresh take on WWII. By focusing on Japan in the period immediately after the war, it explores new territory in the history of WWII, a subject already well mined in film. The subject choice is both creative and fascinating.

History buffs will be delighted with the film’s careful, fact-based approach. General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the recently surrendered and now occupied Japan, is under pressure from American politicians aiming to satisfy the public’s thirst for revenge for the war. On the other hand, MacArthur is soon to be charged with the rebuilding of Japan. He is keenly aware of how the Japanese people revered their emperor and how condemning Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) to death for war crimes would vastly complicate his work, or even spark an uprising.

Fans of Tommy Lee Jones may be less delighted, as he really has more of a supporting role as MacArthur. The real focus of the story is MacArthur’s assistant, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), to whom MacArthur assigns the difficult task of establishing the Emperor’s level of guilt in the war. Fellers is hampered by restricted access to the Emperor and his staff, evasive Japanese officials, and a ticking clock that gives him only 10 days to do his work. On his side, he has his knowledge of the language and the country, from his posting there before the war, and a romantic connection to a Japanese woman, Aya (Eriko Hatsune), he met at college in the United States. His search for her in the war-ravaged country runs alongside his hunt for evidence to exonerate the Emperor of Japan.

The romantic story is fictional, but otherwise one has to admire director Peter Webber’s devotion to historical detail and accuracy. The film is beautifully shot and well-acted, with layered characters and realistic human emotion. Jones perfectly captures the iconic General MacArthur, with his corncob pipe, sunglasses, and egotistical swagger. The film does an excellent job of recreating a devastated post-war Japan and building sympathy for a people drawn into to war by appeals to national pride and driven by the military’s ambitions.

However, the search for pieces of this puzzle, which unfolds like a police procedural, is more deliberative than pulse pounding, despite the ticking-clock aspect. However, it does offer us a look at Japanese culture and their feelings for the Emperor at the time. The careful recreation of post-war Japan also gives is a sense of the country’s beauty, despite the devastation of extensive bombing, and the suffering of civilians facing hunger, personal loss, and a world torn apart. The romantic quest helps add a needed emotional edge for Feller in this human, thoughtful film. However, this serious and sincere film is more for those who are intrigued by the history than those seeking dramatic fireworks.

Emperor is a polished, thoughtful little historical film whose serious treatment of its subject earns it admiration and an audience intrigued by this little-explored bit of WWII history. | Cate Marquis

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