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Amid the ashes of the Rising Sun: “Emperor”

March 11, 2013

Emperor_posterEmperor is a unique, not-completely-successful movie that sorta puts me in mind of Shanghai—and not simply because of its period and setting. Like Shanghai, Emperor has been shuffled into theaters with a minimum of advertising (for there to be any less, the studio would actually have to try and physically prevent people from seeing it), as if the studio execs themselves have no idea what to make of it. Also like Shanghai, this film is a throwback to an earlier, more ambitious time of moviemaking, when filmmakers were unafraid to tackle thorny moral issues in unclassifiable stories. This reticence is kinda too bad, since Emperor—while not as deep or rich as it wants to be—is nonetheless never not interesting.

The film takes place in Post-War Japan, just as Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) has set up shop to assume his position as military governor of the ruined island. On his staff is General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox, looking weirder and weirder with every role), an expert on Japanese culture tasked with heading the Tokyo war crimes tribunal. This task alone is plenty complicated already—Fellers is supervising men who have no understanding of the language or culture of this country, let alone how to puzzle out who was responsible for what. To make matters worse, Washington DC is pushing to prosecute Emperor Hirohito for war crimes based upon whatever role he might have had in the decision to bomb Pearl Harbor.

Fellers quandary is an unenviable one. Hirohito is considered semi-deific by the Japanese people, and arresting him could easily endanger the occupation and the fragile reconstruction plans. Additionally, a destabilized Japan could lead to Soviet intervention and eventual occupation (the Russkies were really itching to invade Japan). On top of all this, the general population of the US is clamoring for revenge, and MacArthur is pondering a run for President (SPOILER ALERT: He’s not the WW2 General who gets the big chair). So, everyone has skin in this game, and Fellers is right behind the 8-ball.

At the same time, Fellers is frantically trying to learn what he can about the fate of Aya (Eriko Hatsune), a beautiful school teacher he was romantically involved with while he studied in Japan. His search from her helps bring the utter devastation of the country into sharper focus, rather than let it fill the background as the criminal investigation takes center stage. It doesn’t work particularly well, other than to make you question the morality of our firebombing campaign against Japan, because, damn, Eriko Hatsune is cute.

Emperor has a lot to recommend. It looks great, and features some solid performances by Fox and Jones—who knows how to tweak his ornery persona to evoke both MacArthur’s megalomania as well as his administrative genius. It also asks us to consider big questions about culpability and morality in wartime. On one level, Fellers’ mission is borderline ludicrous—and the ruined country that he traverses stands as a testimony to this—and yet also urgent and necessary. Application of law, the movie suggests, is the beginning of a return to normalcy.

Unfortunately, Emperor doesn’t have the finesse to pull it all off. The audience must supply their own levels of complexity at times, and the movie leans a bit too far toward the apologetic. Yes, the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—along with the near incineration of many of Japan’s major cities—was horrific, but the Japanese atrocities committed throughout Asia are barely glanced upon. Their occupation of China is mentioned glancingly, but the notorious Rape of Nanking is never brought up.

Still, the movie is never boring or insultingly simple-minded, and includes a genuinely affecting closing scene. Like Phantom, my last reviewed film, Emperor makes a pretty good rental.

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