Monday, December 9, 2013

'Emperor' falls short

“Emperor” is a movie with great potential. The thought of seeing Tommy Lee Jones portray Gen. Douglas MacArthur as he oversees the rebuilding of Japan after World War II was enough to make me check out this film directed by Peter Webber. The story of the challenges facing the United States and Japan during the post-war reconstruction also promises a unique “war movie.” Unfortunately, “Emperor” never quite lives up to its potential.

Early in the movie, we learn that MacArthur’s mission also includes determining if the emperor of Japan ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course, the general realizes this could lead to Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) being tried for war crimes - an event that could plunge a still-smoldering Japan into even more chaos. He charges Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) with the task of investigating the emperor’s role in the attack. Fellers also is well aware that his findings could determine the success or failure of the reconstruction effort.

But the movie delves into a subplot involving Fellers trying to determine the fate of a Japanese girlfriend. We learn that during college Fellers fell in love with an exchange student, Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune). Though she abruptly left the United States, she had already stolen Fellers’ heart. Now, as he investigates the emperor, Fellers is also trying to determine if his love survived the war.

My biggest complaint about this subplot is that I never felt there was a great chemistry between Fellers and Aya. It’s obvious that this love story is being used to broaden the appeal of the movie. But the chemistry is not there, which turns this subplot into a cliched story of star-crossed lovers caught in the chaos of a war. Though it offers another mystery for viewers, most people will figure out how this subplot turns out before the movie’s big reveal.

It’s much more interesting to watch Fellers track down and question Japanese officials as he attempts to unravel what role the emperor played in the war. There’s a fascinating mix of allegiances at play here. It’s up to Fellers to determine the allegiance of each person he meets. His investigation is the strength of “Emperor.”

The climactic meeting between MacArthur and the emperor shows what the movie could have been. There’s a palpable tension and urgency as we watch lower-level officials on both sides hashing out the details of this meeting. There’s a real sense of Japan’s future - and the future of the world - being shaped by this one meeting. It also exposes how the scenes showing Fellers’ investigation, as compelling as they are to watch, lacked the same sense of urgency. The love story just undercuts it.

“Emperor” can be commended for taking a look at this piece of WWII history that doesn’t get as much screen time as Pearl Harbor or the dropping of atomic bombs, but when the credits roll, viewers may be left with the feeling that there’s much more of this story that could have been told.