A complex film packed with (possibly deliberate) contradictions, Emperor is a retrospective American portrait of the days immediately after the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific War of 1945.
Moreover it is a consideration of how the United States dealt with the thorny issue of Japan’s emperor, Hirohito, in the wake of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For Hirohito represented a mighty problem. He was more than just a monarch and figurehead: Hirohito was a living god. And with Japan on its knees should America arrest him for war crimes or pardon him for his involvement in securing his nation’s surrender?
Disentangling this matter fell to General Bonner Fellers, played with gravitas by Matthew Fox. Above him sits the egotistical General Douglas MacArthur. Between them they must navigate a route through the fog or double talk that surrounds the emperor and decide, once and for all, whether he is hero or villain.
Writer/director Peter (Girl with a Pearl Earring) Webber weaves together much historical detail to present a dense but never impenetrable depiction of two very different cultures struggling to locate a meeting of minds. In amidst the heavy-going political posturing – Washington wants Hirohito put on trial – Fellers is desperate to re-connect with the Japanese girlfriend he knew before the war.
In other hands the romance might feel like a tacked-on distraction. Webber avoids any sense of that and uses Fellers’ detective work as a means of bookending his story – humanising the Japanese but never minimising what the ruling classes did.
Fox scores highly as the career soldier tasked with a dirty job whilst his commanding officer grandstands and embraces photo opportunities. It is to his credit that he stands firm against Tommy Lee Jones, playing MacArthur, and retains control of the action.
But there is nevertheless a sense that his aching heart slows down an already slow film.
Emperor is less about war crimes than it is about the end of empire. It represents a somewhat po-faced character study of a country, a people and a culture immersed in the traditions of the ancient past. If the emperor is a figurehead then his potential indictment means the downfall of everything Japan has stood for.
On that basis Emperor is an outstanding film, and one that requires both patience and an autodidactic approach to history.
Star rating: ***