Amazingly, and somewhat tragically, stories that are fascinating from a historical perspective don’t always make the best movies. When General Douglas MacArthur was charged with restoring order in post-World War II Japan, he had plenty on his plate: His own country had just won this particular war by dropping a couple of atomic bombs, a tough act to follow. But he also had to figure out how to deal with Japan’s reigning emperor, Hirohito, a man who was – in the literal sense -- a god to his people.
MacArthur put General Bonner Fellers, an expert in Japanese culture, in charge of figuring out what to do with the emperor, giving him just a few days to determine whether this man-god should be allowed to remain the leader of his country or be hanged for war crimes. The movie version of this story, Peter Webber’s “Emperor,” should be more compelling than it is. Even so, its earnestness, like the hardworking tail of a tadpole, still manages to propel it forward; flaws and all, it at least inspires some curiosity about the real-life events it’s based on.
A stalwart Matthew Fox plays Fellers, and we learn early on just how, as a young man, he became fascinated by all things Japanese: While attending university somewhere in the United States, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young Japanese student named Aya (Eriko Hatsune). The two are eventually separated, first by duty and then by war. But Fellers’ interest in Japan is ongoing, and it becomes particularly useful in the military. To that end MacArthur (played, with taciturn glee, by Tommy Lee Jones), newly ensconced in Japan in 1945, puts Fellers in charge of seeking out Hirohito’s closest associates to help determine their involvement in the war’s most brutal crimes, and to eventually reach Hirohito himself (played, when he shows up in all his courtly awkwardness, by Takatarô Kataoka).
What Fellers discovers in talking to these old-school loyalists, steeped in philosophies of war (and life) that reach back thousands of years, is that a sense of duty is in their blood. One character, Aya’s uncle and himself a Japanese general (played by Toshiyuki Nishida), essentially tells Fellers, “We’re ruthless warriors because we just can’t help ourselves -- our devotion to an ancient code of honor is that strong.” What’s interesting about this character’s admission is the thread of sadness that’s woven through it. That’s not enough to exonerate any human being from war crimes, but it at least suggests a glimmer of culpability, a deeply human urge to make sense of atrocities.
The story here has been somewhat fictionalized, by screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass. It’s not known, for example, if Fellers really was in love with a Japanese woman; but one of the movie’s producers, Yoko Narahashi, while researching Feller’s past, came across a reference to his visiting a “friend” in Japan, and wondered if there might be some romantic backdrop to Fellers’ story. (Narahashi’s own grandfather was Teizaburo Sekiya, a member of Hirohito’s Ministry of the Interior.)
And Webber (“Hannibal Rising,” “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”) approaches the story respectfully – perhaps a bit too respectfully. The movie at times feels more instructional than dramatic. Too often, characters are given important speeches (“We did our duty, but we lost our humanity”); ideally, their feelings and motivations might have unfolded gradually and more gracefully. But as shot by Stuart Dryburgh, the picture is certainly handsome-looking – it has a conventional, well-polished visual elegance, and that suits its subject matter perfectly. “Emperor” may not be the most dazzling of history lessons, but it never treats the past as a dusty, deserted place. Weber understands that the past is inhabited not by the dead, but by those who actually lived through it – and living sometimes means making mistakes that resonate throughout history.