“Emperor” held such great promise as a chronicle of General Douglas MacArthur's occupation of Japan, but this highly romanticized and revisionist depiction of efforts to avoid war crimes prosecution of Emperor Hirohito spends far too much time on fictionalized subplots when a careful retelling of history would supply more than enough drama.
Director Peter Webber (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”) and writers Vera Blasi and David Klass peer into ethical and moral considerations affecting the U.S. Army's post-World War II investigation of Japan's military leadership, particularly whether Hirohito was complicit in the country's aggression, through a gauzy, romantic lens. “Emperor” is a diverting but unconvincing melodrama with good intentions clouding its judgment.
Matthew Fox plays General Bonner Fellers, who led the war crimes investigation under MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones). As MacArthur's military secretary, Fellers is depicted as an earnest and idealistic investigator with enormous respect for the Japanese people and an advanced understanding of the culture. More than anyone else in the occupying forces, Fellers comprehends the danger of prosecuting Hirohito, who was worshipped by the Japanese and whose imprisonment or execution would result in total social meltdown and a protracted, bloody occupation.
But Webber, Blasi and Klass, working from Shiro Okamoto's book, undermine Fellers' strength by building a secondary romance into the story and, worse yet, it's told in flashbacks. The prewar romance between Fellers and schoolteacher Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune) becomes a dramatic pretext for Fellers' keen understanding and empathy for the Japanese people. In his book “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II,” author John Dower wrote that Fellers' understanding most likely came from military training and a cousin who was married to a Japanese diplomat. “Emperor” loses its momentum by lapsing back into the prewar romance at regular intervals.
Jones does a sturdy job of portraying MacArthur as, well, Tommy Lee Jones in khakis, which is entertaining but not much of a stretch. Fox is more problematic. At 46, the “Lost” star is only five years younger than Fellers was at the time of the occupation, but he lacks the military bearing of a senior officer, coming off more like a recent West Point grad. Most of all, “Emperor” feels informed by 21st century ideals rather than the realities of the mid-1940s occupation. It is nice and romantic when a more forthright history is needed.
— George Lang