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Review: Emperor – Land of the rising ‘yawn’

Posted by on March 8, 2013 – 12:00 am

EmperorThe new docudrama film, Emperor, covers the days following Japan’s World War II surrender after the United States dropped atomic weapons on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Believe me, I was very tempted to declare this film “a bomb” — but it wasn’t that bad — although it might have been better suited as a History Channel mini-series instead of a theatrical feature film.

Veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones plays General Douglas MacArthur, the man who was responsible for getting Japan back on its feet after the devastating toll brought about by years of war and the atomic bombings of their cities. Jones is great in this part and he is the best thing about this otherwise dull docudrama. Unfortunately, he is only on screen for a short amount of time.

The main character in this film is General Bonner Fellers, played by Matthew Fox of Lost fame. Fellers is a real historical figure and a “Japanese expert” who helped General MacArthur wade through all of the political and cultural ramifications of potentially trying and executing Japan’s Emperor Hirohito (played by Takataro Kataoka) for war crimes. This was not an easy task given the nation’s two-thousand year old culture, where honor and duty are taken deadly serious.

For me the film fell off track with a sub-plot concerning General Fellers love affair with a young Japanese teacher, Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune). I can’t tell you if Aya existed in real life or if her character was simply manufactured for the film to provide background for Fellers regarding how he came to his knowledge of Japanese culture. Either way, I never bought into Emperor ‘s distracting flashbacks and weak romantic story machinations.

EmperorAs directed by Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring), Emperor basically jumps from interrogation scenes with high-ranking Japanese officials and generals to romantic flashbacks to drinking & bar fight scenes to fun Tommy Lee Jones performances in full MacArthur swagger – all culminating in MacArthur’s inevitable meeting with the Emperor, where the General proves he’s not the complete jerk that the film leads you to believe at first. There is not really much excitement here unless you are history buff, in which case you’ll probably have fun differentiating fact from fiction.

Matthew Fox is fine as General Fellers and I believe he is still looking for a breakout lead role after his stint as “Jack” on the popular Lost television series. Unfortunately, Emperor is not likely to gain him much ground towards leading man status on the big screen. Tommy Lee Jones steals the show and I think this would have been a much better film if it had focused on his character and MacArthur’s extended role in post-WWII Japan.

There is an awesome film to be made about the rebuilding of war torn Japan, but the awkward Emperor is too dry while at the same time lacking enough detail to allow the viewer to learn anything substantial. Again, I think it would have played better as a high-end historical docudrama, a la the History Channel’s Hatfields & McCoys, where the complex narrative is not confined by a two-hour time limitation and more attention might have been paid to the particulars. As interesting as this history may be, it might be more palatable in smaller portions. Grade: 6/10

Photos © 2013 Fellers Film, LLC.