A Slight Masterpiece, by Scott Nye
So many damn movies have been made about events surrounding World War II that one could be forgiven for thinking, “Hey, it’s cool, we’ve got this one covered already.” But while postwar Japanese reconstruction was a familiar, if slightly distanced, subject for its native cinema in the era, American cinema wasn’t too keen on touching anything having to do with its occupation, nor with the lingering effects of the use of the atomic bomb. So when I say I don’t think I’ve seen a film quite like Emperor, which follows Generals Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) and Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) as they establish American occupation immediately following Japan’s surrender and investigate the role Emperor Hirohito played in the war, this isn’t to say such a story has never been told, just that its relative freshness is much appreciated. Add to that some fine performances from the aforementioned men, and a surprisingly engaging and layered story (until…well, we’ll get there), and you’ve got a pretty solid evening at the movies.
Bonner Fellers may be the most knowledgeable American officer when it comes to Japanese culture, but his investment isn’t purely professional – he had a college romance with a Japanese girl who came to the States to study, and has hardly stopped thinking of her. In fact, the first thing he does when given the opportunity is assign his driver to find her whereabouts, if indeed she is still about. This is after he had previously diverted American bombers from the lady’s hometown in the hopes of sparing her life. So already we’re quite a ways removed from the usual portrait of the American servicemen in World War II, with their selflessness and heroism and such; this is a man driven by personal interests first, and the needs of the Army second. Things hardly get nobler further up the chain, as MacArthur is largely using the American occupation to further his upcoming bid for the Presidency, and spends as much time posing for pictures as he does managing the state of affairs there. For most of the film, screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass (working from a book by Shiro Okamoto) and director Peter Webber (The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Hannibal Rising) avoid the sort of jingoistic, every-soldier-is-a-hero mentality that drives many a war picture, instead keeping things fairly grounded in character and a more ambiguous moral context than the 1940s is typically depicted to possess.
It should be noted that the romance story was an invention on the part of the filmmakers, but, hey, we’re making movies here, not history lessons. Anyway, it gives a personal angle to Bonner’s knowledge of (and, in the movie anyway, love for) Japan, as well as rooting an important narrative of the postwar environment – that perhaps the United States didn’t do the right thing in dropping the bomb. Rather than taking a more intellectual, theoretical approach to that question, the bomb has personal import to Bonner, which is then expounded as he tours around Japan, surveying the widespread damage. Bonner himself becomes a deeply conflicted figure, intent on doing right by the Army, but also eager to establish himself as a friend to Japan, if only so he can selfishly believe himself to be. Blasi and Klass keep the pace with a sharp narrative, which Webber executes with a very focused economy of language, and the film develops a pretty solid charm…until it hits the third act.
By this point, the chips are down in several respects, and everything’s on the table – Bonner’s reputation, his personal pride, his hope of finding his lost love, and all the while MacArthur is set to meet personally with Emperor Hirohito, which is almost unheard of. The stakes, really, couldn’t be higher, until, bit by bit, Blasi and Klass chip away at each of them with total convenience, no confidence in either their premises or the audience. It may be that, historically speaking, things worked out pretty succinctly and conveniently, but given that they were willing to invent a whole backstory for Fellers, the mess they make of the third act is pretty hard to simply let pass without comment.
Now, at the top of this review, I said the film made a pretty satisfying evening at the movies, and I’d still stand by that. Fox is given a great outlet for his particular brand of “is this guy maybe a little crazy?”, and Jones excels at the role of “General” precisely in the manner you’d hope. The first two acts contain enough good stuff to get you by, so, yeah, as much as one doesn’t like to view films as commodities with isolated attributes, frankly, I never expected this film to suddenly turn into a cohesive masterpiece. The best it was going to achieve was an involving character piece in an interesting, fairly unexplored setting, and it’s really only a notch or two below that. This is a film that’s engineered specifically at each turn, and I just think it gets a little lazy in that engineering late in the game. But it remains a product, and as such, it essentially does what it promises to. It might be slight praise, but I’m totally okay with there being a cinematic space for slight pictures. In fact, I’m happy they exist.