Though I suppose they're better than nothing, movies have never been a good place to learn history. There are exceptions to the rule: exceptionally well-researched films, honest ones that convey the essence of truth even in conflation and remove. Emperor is not one of those.
Emperor purports to tell the story of what happened in Japan in the fall of 1945, as occupying Americans conducted an investigation into Emperor Hirohito's culpability in war crimes. Would he stand trial, face execution? Or would he remain in place as the cornerstone of a rebuilt Japan? On the face of it, this post-war transitional twilight zone could be a fascinating place to be for two hours, in the company of men like Hirohito and General Douglas MacArthur, the latter played by Tommy Lee Jones.
But this "inspired by a true story" story gets told entirely from the point of view of "Brigadier General Bonner Fellers" (Matthew Fox), whose name I put in quotation marks because the character resembles his historical counterpart pretty much in name only. Yes, Fellers was a right-hand man to MacArthur at the time and investigated war crimes and the role of Hirohito.
But Emperor (based on Shiro Okamoto's book His Majesty's Salvation, unavailable in English) ignores prevailing opinion about how the investigation went down and, worse, invents an obsessive romance with a Japanese woman named Aya (Eriko Hatsune), "inspired by" Fellers' friendship with one Yuri Watanabe. Emperor does so on the presumption that no one would sit still for some history without a "girl in the picture" for some romance that turns out soggy rather than swoony.
Seen in persistent (and persistently dull) flashbacks, Aya never breathes as a character, instead becoming a Ghost of Love Past and a symbol of Fellers' solidarity with the Japanese people. The screen Fellers utters some noble proclamations, like "Revenge is not the same thing as justice," but he's also saddled with clunky narration like "We are the occupying power, but we must be seen as liberators, not conquerors."
Mostly he pounds the partly pulverized pavement to interview a succession of officials, in a plot structured not unlike a detective show or courtroom drama, while MacArthur spends his days posing for photo ops and trying to intimidate without coming off as too threatening. With his limited screen time, Jones contents himself to bend MacArthur to the actor's familiar crusty, dry-witted charm.
The true story of post-war back-room meetings, or at least a truer one, might have worked for Emperor, but the mealy half-truth director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass settle for just winds up a waste of everyone's time.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]