2 stars out of 4
The biggest problem with period movies like "Emperor" is that the majority of us know little in the way of hard facts and, as is often the case, neither do the people making the movies. Based on your choice of verbiage, you can refer to this film with one of three similar labels: historical fiction, revisionist history or dramatic conjecture. The only thing you can count on for sure is that most of the characters with speaking roles were indeed real people.
Both helping and hindering "Emperor" is that it's a postwar war flick. War makes for great drama in most cases, but the aftermath -- the majority of the time -- not so much. Can you recall any movie with a plot that dealt with the cleanup and rebuilding after the fighting had ceased?
More of a political potboiler than an armed forces procedural, "Emperor" succeeds best (which is infrequently) when it puts the focus on unofficial diplomacy and the art of pitting countrymen against each other. In order to prevent the film from being a bone-dry history lesson and series of staring contests, the filmmakers included a romantic sub-plot that virtually everyone who knows anything about the man involved claims to have never happened.
The main plot point involves Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and his orders to make the peace with the Japanese hierarchy in the wake of their surrender and start the process of rebuilding the country. This same thing happened in Europe (the Marshall Plan) but the rub here is that the ultra-proud Japanese -- already ashamed at losing the war -- were steadfast in holding on to their honor and dignity, so much so that many of the higher-ups chose suicide over providing aid or assistance to the Americans offering them help.
Getting the Japanese to cooperate while allowing them the illusion of saving face was a job MacArthur never wanted and subsequently dumped on his second-in-command Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox). A resident of Japan for some time prior to the war, Fellers grudgingly proceeds to carry out MacArthur's orders while trying to locate his old flame, a missing-in-the-rubble schoolteacher named Aya (Eriko Hatsune).
Coming off a bug-eyed performance as an emaciated psycho-killer in the embarrassing "Alex Cross," Fox reverts back to a softer version of his character from the "Lost" TV series -- a resolute leader but something of a softy when it comes to matters of the heart. His scenes with Hatsune -- all prewar flashback -- are bathed in gauze-filtered soft light and possess all the friction and danger of a laundry detergent commercial. For her part, Hatsune emits slightly less emotion than a porcelain China doll and almost as much expression.
One of the most overrated actors of all time, Jones, as usual, plays just a slight variation on himself and is totally miscast as MacArthur, yet oddly is still fun to watch. Chewing the scenery like a puppy with a blood-soaked new toy, Jones delivers salty rejoinders (which should have pushed the rating into firm "R" territory but didn't) in his usual clipped Texas drawl. About the only thing about MacArthur that Jones attempts are the arms akimbo posturing.
Regulated to the shadows or hidden in dark profile for the duration, Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) is finally trotted out fully in the next-to-last scene and with just a few lines and lots of tentative movement, turns in the movie's best performance.
Greatest Generation WWII buffs and history students will have a field day picking apart the gross inaccuracies screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass pass off as the truth with a script that bears only a passing resemblance to the novel of the same name by Shiro Okamoto. For his part, director Peter Webber ("Hannibal Rising," "Girl with a Pearl Earring") does nothing to distinguish himself from any other third-rung "History" channel subcontractor but at least is smart enough to keep the running time well under two hours. (Roadside Attractions)