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2012 | 98 min | PG-13 | 2.35:1



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Theatrical release date

 08 March, 2013
 04 October, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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Screenshots from Emperor Blu-ray

Emperor Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, March 7, 2013

Many films dramatize the aftermath of World War II, but few have tackled the immediate steps of research after combat has ceased. There’s a novelty to “Emperor” that makes it inviting, investigating conversations concerning the reconstruction of Japan mere days after atomic bombs were dropped in 1945. An historical treatment seems to be a perfectly acceptable route for the production to take, yet “Emperor” is concerned that hardened men talking procedural events won’t make much of a movie, so a romantic subplot is introduced, trying to humanize the enormity of war. It’s an unnecessary addition, but there’s a lot more disappointment to come with this lackluster effort.

Arriving in Japan to oversee the possibility of renewal after Nagasaki and Hiroshima were flattened by advanced U.S. weaponry, leading to Emperor Hirohito’s order of surrender, General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones, in a glorified cameo) puts General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) in charge of the ruler’s fate. Handed ten days to decide if Hirohito should be tried for war crimes, Fellers commences his investigation, working through the Japanese military ranks in an effort to gather evidence before the shamed men commit suicide. While playing careful political and psychological games with the fallen enemy, Fellers also has his eye on another quest, hoping to track down lost love Aya (Eriko Hatsune), a beautiful Japanese woman he met while she attended college in America. Taking their tentative romance to Japan, much to the concern of her connected father, Aya and Fellers fight to preserve their love, only to be confronted with a world inching closer to war, forcing them to part. Paired with translator Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda), Fellers is caught between his national duty and heartsick obsession, finding his focus on justice softened by his love for Japan.

“Emperor” is a stately picture, boasting fine cinematography and a production design that explores the annihilation of the land and its remaining pockets of prosperity, home to a network of Japanese officials Fellers is in charge of collection and questioning. From a technical viewpoint, there’s not much to object to, finding the picture tasteful as it recreates a post-WWII atmosphere of paranoia and suffering. Director Peter Webber (“The Girl with a Pearl Earring”) reveals offers confidence with the war material, encouraging a steely mood as MacArthur’s unit arrives to sort out a shell-shocked country, working through the ranks to find answers concerning the true identity of the man who ordered the Peal Harbor attack, hoping to funnel blame toward a single individual to satisfy military and public appetites for revenge back home. Observing the clash of customs and the frightening might of the atomic bomb, the feature does a serviceable job finding a rhythm of analysis with a most guarded opponent.

When that procedural concentration is broken by Fellers’s personal crusade to find Aya, “Emperor” is left with little to work with. The romantic angle of the screenplay feels too calculated to soften the feature for a wider audience, slowing the film to a crawl as Fox and Hatsune flounder with little chemistry, while the lead actor appears woefully out of place with a character that demands a certain release of defenselessness he’s incapable of communicating. The subplot hopes to introduce a little tenderness and tragedy to strengthen Fellers’s motivation and complicate his ultimate mission of judgment, giving the man a front row seat to the pre-war turmoil of Japan, only to return years later to decide its fate. The emphasis on Fellers’s emotional volatility is intriguing, but unfilled by thin writing and poor execution, presented as a soap opera when the movie is more effective as a military drama.

“Emperor” has a genuinely meaningful performance from Haneda, who’s terrific in limited scenes, while Jones stomps around with his customary poker-faced attitude, playing himself more than MacArthur. However, his small contributions are welcome as “Emperor” loses steam, slowing down to a stop before a nifty conclusion arrives, where MacArthur meets with a trembling Hirohito. It’s such a stimulating scene, it makes the rest of picture seem positively wasteful, working with such lofty schemes of judgment and romance, yet nothing can top a straightforward moment of two world leaders in a room trying to communicate their intentions.

Starring: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune, Toshiyuki Nishida, Masayoshi Haneda, Takatarô Kataoka
Director: Peter Webber

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