The legendary meeting between Hirohito and General Douglas MacArthur, following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, has inspired two strongly different historical dramas. Aleksandr Sokurov’s acclaimed The Sun (2005), told from the emperor’s point of view, takes a dreamy, ethereal art-film approach, completely ignoring the question of whether he’ll be prosecuted for war crimes. Emperor, on the other hand, is aggressively American in its relentless quest for accountability, predictably juxtaposed with personal trauma. Since Hirohito remained in ceremonial power until his death in 1989, there’s no suspense about the outcome. Instead, the film offers a labored treatise on the Japanese national character, with endless speeches about honor, devotion, loyalty, and the people’s reverence for their emperor as a human deity.
Though Tommy Lee Jones plays MacArthur, in this context, the general is little more than the military equivalent of a precinct captain, forever barking at the detective to shape up. Emperor’s tour guide is Matthew Fox as Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, who’s been charged with assessing whether Hirohito should be tried or pardoned, and given a mere 10 days to deliver his report. Complicating matters is Fox’s previous romantic relationship with a Japanese exchange student (Eriko Hatsune), as he continually takes time out from interviewing various imperial personnel to find out whether his beloved survived the war. In the interest of rote parallel dramatic construction, both of these threads resolve simultaneously, with dual last-minute revelations regarding Hatsune’s fate and Hirohito’s role in Japan’s surrender.
The idea that nobody would care about momentous world events without some sappy romantic angle to add “heart” speaks to everything that’s woefully mediocre about mainstream American filmmaking these days. Even as an investigative procedural, though, Emperor is pretty dry stuff—the kind of movie in which one character delivers a lengthy monologue on European colonialism (vis-à-vis Japan’s invasion of Manchuria) and another testily replies “I don’t need a history lesson, your excellency.” Maybe not, but somebody evidently thought the audience did. Unlike The Sun, however, Emperor does at least have a credible MacArthur, even though Jones’ job description doesn’t include transforming himself into a well-known historical figure. (It might as well be Agent K in charge of the occupation.) Showing up about once per reel to deliver some homespun sarcasm, he provides a much-needed jolt of energy in what’s otherwise too often a beautifully lit, impressively mounted textbook chapter