In the aftermath of World War II, the American forces occupying Japan struggle to decide whether the country’s Emperor was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbour, and whether he should stand trial for war crimes. As he leads the investigation, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) searches for his lost love among the rubble of Japan.
There is little doubt that there is plenty of scope within Emperor’s temporal setting for a historical drama; immediately after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, occupying forces have to decide whether or not to punish the head of state – a self proclaimed god – for war crimes. As if grappling with the ethical and moral implications of this, as well as getting the truth in the matter, the investigating officer is distracted by the search for the love of his life, who may have been killed as a direct result of bombings that he ordered. Thrilling, right? Wrong. Something went very wrong during the scripting/directing/editing process of Emperor, leaving the film feeling dull and flat.
Matthew Fox has not had an incredibly successful career outside of Lost; Emperor is his first leading role since the incredibly dull Vantage Point. Fox plays a character based on a real man, but somehow, any interesting features of the character have been sucked out, leaving General Bonner Fellers as beige as his uniform. Each movement the character makes is entirely predictable, and any time he could be confronted about his actions, the film shies away. Fox plays a character that is so dull and one dimensional as to be almost lifeless; there is never any risk taken, there is never any sense of urgency or danger, laving Fellers driving around ruined Japan in a jeep asking questions of an occupied people, which they do not seem disposed to answer.
Tommy Lee Jones tries his best as General MacArthur and, while he has some of the best, most caustic and funniest lines in the film, he is on screen so little that his presence becomes little more than a welcome relief from the tedium of Fellers lifting up rocks and finding nothing underneath. The Japanese actors are sidelined in favour of our American heroes, although their culture is treated with respect, mostly thanks to Fox’s character being in love with a Japanese woman which, now that I think about it, seems to be the most shoehorned in subplot of all time.
Director Peter Webber has had a varied career so far. His two most famous outings are the generally well received Girl With A Pearl Earring and the critically panned Hannibal Rising, which went on to garner cult status. With Emperor, Webber has created a monotone film that centres on a protagonist who does not do the one thing that a central character should; change. As well as this, the film omits chunks of historical information.
Emperor could be an interesting film, but it focuses too much on the romantic angle of the story – which feels a little forced at times – rather than the historical implications of the occupation of Japan. Tommy Lee Jones tries his best with a small appearance in the film, but Matthew Fox is bland and uninspiring as the lead character, leaving the film feeling dull.