Emperor-Tommy-Lee-Jones

In Emperor, Tommy Lee Jones is playing another historical figure, this time WWII General Douglas MacArthur. The movie takes place in Japan, during the American occupation in the wake of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender. MacArthur is left to find out what to do with the country’s beloved monarch, and calls on General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), an expert in Japanese culture, to help decide the Emperor’s fate.

Melding both fact and fiction, the film dives Feller’s struggles and psyche. He developed an affinity for Japan when he met and fell in love with a school teacher (played by Eriko Hatsune). He understands the love the Japanese people have for the Emperor, and knows that the wrong kind of punishment could deal a terrible blow to a nation that is already crumbling. He also is aware of the political needs of his own country, and the brand of retribution that it seeks. Fellers struggles with the secrecy and customs of the Japanese officials as he searches for an answers, while at the same time trying to find out whether his old flame survived the war.

Jones is obviously having a blast playing the boisterous MacArthur, and as the film progresses you want to see more of him. But Fellers, not MacArthur, is the main character here. Fox has his moments of detailed intensity, but there are other moments where he fails to evoke what’s going on in his head.

The movie also lacks suspense. There’s no sense of the urgency that should be felt when there are just ten days to decide the fate of a nation. The fault here could lie with the script – anyone who knows their history already knows how this all works out. David Klass and Vera Blasi tried their best, even shortening the amount of time that Fellers was given to make his decision, but the plot still falls short. The mixture of history and fiction could be what slows the pacing of the film.

Even with these faults, Emperor is still enjoyable due to a variety of other factors. The cinematography is quite picturesque, displaying both the beauty of Japan and the difficulties of the postwar environment. The film also brings some wonderful Japanese actors for the attention of Western filmgoers. Isao Natsuyagi gives a strong performance, Sekiya, a palace high official. The build-up of the importance of the Emperor is rewarded with Takataro Kataoko’s performance. He makes the most out of a single scene.

And the elements of the production as a whole – the costuming, makeup, and design – are all superbly done. At the end of the film, pictures of the historical events and people that were recreated in the film roll alongside the closing credits. The level of accuracy in the details is astonishing.

While Emperor has its faults, it’s still a film worth viewing, even if it’s purely for a dramatized history lesson. Don’t expect to see too much from this film during the next awards season, unless it’s on the production end.