Possibly the most interesting aspect of the film Emperor is the unusual angle it takes on the subject of WWII. Just when you thought the subject had been exhausted over the past six decades of filmmaking, including Pearl Harbor, Saving Private Ryan, and Terrence Malick’s masterful The Thin Red Line, along comes a story from a seldom-visited niche of the grander picture of war. To wit: What happened in Tokyo after the firebombing that left 100,000 dead and after Emperor Hirohito paved the way for surrender?
In director Peter (Girl with a Pearl Earring) Webber’s blandly journeyman — but historically interesting — movie on the subject, Tommy Lee Jones plays the stern-but-image-wary and presidency-hungry General Douglas MacArthur. Upon giving his second-in-command General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) the task of bringing swift justice to bear with the Japanese powers-that-be, he imparts, “Now is the time to impose this fragile peace … but we must be seen as liberators, not conquerors.”
Complicating the plot and the mission to ferret out war criminals and determine the elusive Emperor Hirohito’s culpability in Pearl Harbor and other misdeeds is Fellers’s own vested interest in Japan, stemming from a haunting love affair he had with a Japanese woman years earlier. An immediately postwar state of mind hovers over the film, with the aftermath of bombing seen in the rubble in Tokyo and the bombed-out psyches of the citizenry and deposed military officials. Talk about the toll, nationalistic devotion, and grisly details of the war gone by are carried out in tranquil gardens and bars, with a strong taste for American retribution in the offing.
Some things don’t ring true in Emperor, such as the smarmy sweep of composer Alex Heffes’s generic Hollywood music, which imposes a Western tinge to the atmosphere; some mediation between East and West might have better reflected the presumed theme of the story. But the film, as a whole, fills in another part of the WWII story, one mostly skipped over in history books and multiplexes.