Chalk up Peter Webber's historical drama as another film that might have been informative and even provocative, but winds up being a lackluster, unsatisfying affair. The story is set in 1945 Japan immediately after the surrender; Gen. MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) is on the ground with a small team, tasked with transitioning Japan from a combative enemy to a peaceful and stable nation.
One big question on the table: How complicit was Emperor Hirohito in the warmongering, and should he be tried as a war criminal? Or is the continuing cooperation of the deeply influential spiritual leader of Japan necessary to rebuild a ravaged, fragile nation? Tasked with answering this query — in a historically inaccurate 10 days (!) — is Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), who has some familiarity with Japanese culture, and once had a Japanese girlfriend.
There's some meaty stuff here — how to reconcile after a devastating war, especially when the two sides have alien and frequently misunderstood cultures? Who has the right to be "emperor" of post-war Japan — the man who claims divine right, or the occupier who calls himself "supreme commander"?
But Emperor is undercut by several flaws. Webber weaves the investigation into Hirohito with flashbacks to Fellers' romance, which has all the emotional resonance of a TV movie (the pair picnic in bamboo forests). There's a clunky script that far too often tells us information, rather than showing it. Emperor also tries to ratchet up the tension, when the outcome is a matter of historical record. (Even if you slept through history class, you can easily guess it based on your Sony gadgets.) And finally, Matthew Fox: He just doesn't have the acting chops to bring to life this lesser-known history, and instead seems to double-down on the mopey, heart-broken melodrama.