Director Peter Webber’s royal stinker, Emperor, is at the bottom dregs of its kind: a passionate tale of taboo romance set against the backdrop of a ravaging war. Although intending to echo such classics in the subgenre like Doctor Zhivago, The English Patient, Sayonara and 1942: A Love Story, Emperor errs grievously by navigating in an opposing, hellish direction. In a stroke of sheer irony, Emperor — set just before Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945 — feels closer in cloyingly acidic tone to the abysmal Pearl Harbor, which is quite fitting considering the film’s plot grapples with America’s strenuous relationship with Japan in a post-Pearl Harbor world. Essentially, Peter Webber made the sequel to Pearl Harbor we neither asked for nor wanted, but at least he finds consistency in the same faults as the former film: unconvincing performances barring a few standouts, a mushy romance that’s malnourished by its script, and dialogue so cringe-worthy that you’ll require anti-aging cream after the credits roll.
Emperor’s story is uncomplicated but prizes Hollywood romance over historical exploration. In response to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan surrenders to the Allies and submits itself to U.S. control in 1945. President Harry S. Truman sends America’s most beloved general, Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), to Tokyo in the hopes that he’ll restructure the warn-torn country with a democratic fist. There’s some obvious parallels to our recent democratization of Iraq that the film hints at, especially the U.S.’s insistence on organizing elections in a post-autocratic Japan. Although “hinting” doesn’t equate to “touching upon,” so don’t expect full political disclosure. The only problem the U.S. faces is what to do with Japan’s Emperor Hirohito (Takatarô Kataoka), a man seen as a deity by his people but thought to be solely responsible for the bombardment of Pearl Harbor. Thus steps in General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), who’s tasked to investigate the war crimes, or lack thereof, of the emperor. For Japan’s most revered figure, the results of Fellers’ investigation could mean freedom or execution.
Fellers is chosen because of his affinity for Japan and knowledge of its customs, brought about by the love he holds for his missing Japanese girlfriend, Aya (Eriko Hatsune). Of course, Fellers never reveals he is in a biracial relationship to his fellow officers, but that doesn’t stop some of his military rivals from secretly investigating him. Clearly, Fellers has a conflict of interest that could incur bias in his investigation, but the script by David Klass and Vera Blasi never once holds him accountable for it. He’s our masculine Hollywood hero after all, so our chief interest, we’re told, is to watch Fellers’ true investigation unfold: learning if Aya is dead, buried under a pile of bodies and rubble perhaps, or alive and waiting for her great love to find her. Emperor tries to avoid its history and the figures that defined it until the very end. We’re constantly provided with flashbacks of Fellers and Aya’s earlier life, including when they first met, their relationship trials and tribulations, and ultimately their separation. The good news is that Fox and newcomer Eriko Hatsune actually share great on-screen chemistry, but the mushy dialogue they’re asked to deliver immediately pulls us away from investing in their romance.
I will say, Eriko Hatsune is easily the best part of this film — her beauty is matched by her passion for the character she plays, and she somehow manages to elicit forth a genuine performance that overcomes her character’s underdevelopment. Matthew Fox, on the other hand, continues his pattern of translating poorly to the big screen. Of course it would be ignorant and wrong of me to expect every military officer to have a gruff and forcible tone, but Fox’s higher-pitched voice is distracting whenever his character barks orders to those under his command. A more nuanced and experienced actor would be able to overcome such against-type casting, but Fox struggles to make his “General” title credible. There’s also inconsistency in the way Fox delivers his lines. He reminds me of a singer with a great high register — meaning he’s fantastic when there’s an emotional scene or when he’s asked to fuel that aggressive passion he’s known for that earned him an Emmy® nomination for Lost — but his low or mid-range register is transparently nonexistent. Even the simplest of dialogue comes off like wooden line-reading, and it frustrates me because I know Fox is capable of so much more than he demonstrates in Emperor. Something is not clicking with Fox as a leading actor in Hollywood, and unfortunately he unsuccessfully carries the weight of this film on his shoulders. I wish I could report better news.
If I haven’t discussed Tommy Lee Jones that much, it’s because there’s not a whole lot to talk about. His role as the lively General MacArthur is more of an extended cameo than a fully fleshed-out supporting role. Jones appears once in the beginning to give Fellers a spiel about his plans for Japan, disappears for a bit, and then come backs at the end of the film. The most engaging scenes of course involve Jones because he’s such a magnetic talent who perfectly balances humor with snarly seriousness. His encounter with Emperor Hirohito was one of the very few memorable moments in Emperor, and if there’s an Oscar® for “Best Cameo in a Film,” Jones would be the frontrunner in the race. In other words, don’t expect any awards attention for Jones as MacArthur — simply cherish the all too brief moments Webber allows us to spend with him.
Emperor is ultimately a messy trudge back through history that gets sidetracked by a generic love story. The fact that Emperor Hirohito and MacArthur are sparsely utilized tells me that Emperor’s screenwriters prioritized Hollywood hijinks and ignored the significant history at their disposal. To add further insult to injury, there’s this random side story of Fellers’ mysterious Japanese chauffeur that acts like it’s going to intriguing places but ends up traveling nowhere. It’s moments like these that define Emperor as a confused film that traverses all the cliche movie paths it should’ve avoided. Director Peter Webber does a serviceable job at the helm, with the exception of directing Fox, and his attention to the Japanese aesthetic is marginally impressive, especially since the film was primarly shot in New Zealand. Tommy Lee Jones and Eriko Hatsune, especially, have the stardom to get you through this slow-paced, genre-unspecific movie. I salute any and all who find enjoyment in Emperor, because I found little to none.
Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate release Emperor today, March 8th, in key locations across the country, with a national roll-out to follow. Here’s the trailer for a quick summation of the movie. Perhaps it will pique your interest.