Emperor is as close as we’ve gotten this year to a great film — and that is a sentence I never thought I’d write. In cold print, the idea of a movie based on whether or not Emperor Hirohito should be tried and executed as a war criminal at the end of World War II just isn’t that enticing. After all, we already know that it doesn’t happen. (At least, I’m assuming most people do.) However, all the back-and-forth about what should or shouldn’t happen (and who wanted what) actually turns out to be compelling drama. And if that’s not enough, there’s a secondary story about Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), Gen. MacArthur’s (Tommy Lee Jones) chief investigator, trying to find out if the woman he loved, Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), has survived the war. Blend this together with an intelligent screenplay, effective direction, striking images and a strong musical score and you’ve got one hell of a good movie.
What mostly makes Emperor work is the combination of performances and the film’s knack for what feels — and mostly sounds — like authenticity. (I say mostly because there are a few instances of 21st century dialogue that creep in, like using “reached out” for asked or invited. That bit of modern business-speak is not 1945.) The images of war-ravaged Japan — which are nicely contrasted with Fellers’ flashbacks to pre-war Japan — create an aura that’s almost comparable to that of Carol Reed’s post-war Vienna in The Third Man (1949) — and Reed had the advantage of actually shooting in bombed-out Vienna. The difference is that the tone of the Japanese people — defeated and occupied — is grimmer, less friendly and much harder to read because of the differences in culture. It’s no wonder that MacArthur opts to arrive on foot unarmed, and have his men do so as well, with nothing but “good old-fashioned American swagger.” It makes more of an impression — and it is impression that Tommy Lee Jones’ MacArthur relies on throughout the film. That is, of course, the sort of thing Jones can do effortlessly. Frankly, the movie probably wouldn’t work without him.
If the business with Feller looking for the missing Aya — and the flashbacks involving his relationship with her — are somewhat less compelling than the rest of the film, they are essential to understanding his position in the drama. This becomes especially clear when we learn that he actually had steered bombing missions away from the area she was in. He is not a dispassionate observer, and that makes him exactly the kind of biased investigator — one who understands the country — that MacArthur secretly wants. MacArthur’s position was a tricky one because America wanted to see Hirohito prosecuted, but MacArthur realized the potential danger in such an undertaking.
It’s all geared to get to the famous meeting between MacArthur, the supreme commander, and Hirohito, the Emperor (Takatarô Kataoka) — complete with restaging the photograph of the two of them. The film delivers the goods in this regard by having MacArthur ultimately win by breaking just about every rule he agreed to as concerns the meeting (with, seemingly, Hirohito’s agreement). It stops short of actually exonerating the Emperor — making it clear, that while he did stand up to the military and end the war, the extent of his involvement in the war can never be known — but the film comes across as fair and compassionate.
There’s more to the film than I have room to discuss here but, all in all, Emperor is both instructive and entertaining in ways that it probably doesn’t seem like it could be. It’s a pleasure to see director Peter Webber back to the kind of filmmaking we saw in his Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) after his bad stumble with Hannibal Rising (2007). Plus, this is also the first release of 2013 I’d put on the must-see list. Rated PG-13 for violent content, brief strong language and smoking (historical).
Starts Friday at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14