Film Review: Emperor

American soldiers must determine the fate of Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II in a historical drama grafted onto a fictional romance.

Fact trumps fiction in Emperor, a flawed but fascinating look at Japan immediately after World War II. Compelling when it deals with the nuts and bolts of Japan's surrender, the film hits shakier ground with an interracial romance that makes up the bulk of the story. History buffs and fans of Tommy Lee Jones are the best targets for what ends up an underachieving drama.

As the war draws to a close in 1946, President Truman gives General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) an unenviable task: determine whether or not Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) should face trial for war crimes. The defeated Japan is already on the verge of chaos. MacArthur is caught between hawks who want vengeance and those who worry that convicting the Emperor will inflame the Japanese.

MacArthur hands the job over to Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a Japanese scholar, giving him ten days to reach a decision. Witnesses stonewall Fellers, who has been prohibited from entering the Emperor's palace. It's only when he threatens vice-minister Sekiya (Isao Natsuyagi) that the Japanese begin to cooperate. A late-night visit from General Kido (Masato Ibu) gives Fellers some bargaining power, leading to an unprecedented meeting between Hirohito and MacArthur.

With so much on the line, it's a remarkably suspenseful moment, and both Jones and Kataoka play it to the hilt. Jones may not resemble MacArthur physically, but he captures the general's pomp and swagger without diminishing his real insights and accomplishments.

Fox, on the other hand, lacks the easy authority of a career soldier used to command. In real life Fellers was a Quaker-educated expert in psychological warfare who worked in Egypt before assignment to Japan. Here, screenwriters David Klass and Vera Blasi have given him a fictional pre-war Japanese girlfriend, Aya (Eriko Hatsune), a strategy that lets Fellers and viewers see a more personal side of the country.

Unfortunately, Aya is too thin a character to add much to the story. Her scenes with Fellers are told in gauzy flashbacks filled with romance clichés. In fact, the filmmakers display a surprisingly superficial and condescending attitude toward the Japanese in general. They come off as inscrutable Orientals, shocked and deferential when Fellers shows the slightest familiarity with their customs.

Emperor's early scenes—with charred wrecks of airplanes lining a runway, and the rubble of buildings extending to the horizon—carry a real wallop, but after the film settles in, the sense of destruction and panic disappears into the background. Apart from MacArthur's bracing presence, and some of the interrogation scenes, viewers are left with a film too low-key and simplistic to make much of an impression.