The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs in August 1945 is the routine finale of most films concerned with World War II’s Pacific Theatre. In Emperor, those explosions serve as the opening scene. Emperor Hirohito ordered an unconditional surrender and General Douglas MacArthur is in Tokyo to both sweep out whomever he declares is a war criminal and to begin reconstruction.
You could be forgiven for thinking Emperor is about well, the Emperor and the General, but it is not. It is about Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), his assignment to judge if the Emperor was responsible for Pearl Harbor, and his quest to find his lost love, Aya (Eriko Hatsune). Matthew Fox is an exceptionally imlausible General. Even by the standards of the day, he is too young and worse, Fox puts on an atrocious performance.
I think you cast Matthew Fox when Ben Affleck is unavailable. He was effective as Jack Shephard in the TV series Lost, but he is unable to find his way to credibility here. It is not Fox’s fault that the story is needlessly sidetracked by the love story. The most interesting pieces of Emperor should be the quest to unearth the truth about who ordered what, the surrounding scenery of complete annihilation, and MacArthur’s obvious showmanship.
Douglas MacArthur's (Tommy Lee Jones) ego rivaled anyone else's on Earth. It was widely known he had presidential ambitions and staged an inordinate amount of photo opportunities displaying posed bravado. However, he took his mission to rebuild Japan seriously. His method of military occupation was less confrontational and more inclusive than it could have been. Bad feelings bubbled on both American and Japanese sides, each able to accuse the other of atrocities. It is a shame these arguments and feelings are left mostly on the sideline to focus on a run-of-the-mill romantic melodrama.
Before war broke out, General Fellers was in Japan studying the culture and fell in love with Aya, an English teacher. Tracking her down now that the war is over is no easy task, and unfortunately, it often takes center stage when it should be firmly in the backseat. The Emperor (Takataro Kataoka) is understandably absent from the screen; he was an unreachable figure, only discussed, not interacted with. However, MacArthur should be front and center, just as he was in real life.
Writing General MacArthur as a supporting character was a mistake and placing the love story on equal footing as the war crimes investigation is an even bigger blunder. Director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) does an admirable job showing Tokyo as a desolate wasteland but he is hamstrung by a sub-par screenplay by Vera Blasi and David Klass adapting their work from the book, His Majesty’s Salvation, by Shiro Okamoto.
The tale of MacArthur’s post-war time in Japan should be a strong and memorable film; however, Emperor is slight, underwritten, and forgettable.