Judge Clark Douglas thinks old critics never die, they just fade away.
Japan 1945: General Douglas MacArthur accepted a mission to decide the fate of a nation…
"After careful consideration, I've decided that General Richter can go piss up a rope."
Facts of the Case
World War II has just drawn to a close, and the atmosphere in Japan in exceptionally tense. General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men) has just arrived and has been tasked with determining whether Emperor Hirohito deserves to be tried (and potentially executed) as a war criminal. MacArthur assigns General Bonners Feller (Matthew Fox, Lost), an expert on Japanese culture, to take a closer look at the case. As Feller attempts to determine an appropriate recommendation, we're told the story of the love affair he once conducted with a Japanese woman named Aya (Eriko Hatsune, Norwegian Wood). Will he be able to find his long-lost love amidst the rubble of war-torn Japan? More importantly, will he and General MacArthur be able to make a decision that will preserve the fragile peace between two powerful nations?
I didn't see Emperor when it was in theatres, but I did happen to visit a theatre where it was playing during its limited theatrical run. As I was standing in line to purchase my ticket, I overheard the exchange between the woman in front of me and the theatre employee working at the box office:
Woman: "One for MacArthur, please."
Regardless of the woman's confusion, at least she knew which element of the movie was worth seeing. Tommy Lee Jones makes a terrific MacArthur, in part because he makes the decision not to even bother attempting a MacArthur impersonation (save for posing with that signature corn cob pipe). Jones fuses his signature world-weary demeanor with the sort of intrusive brashness he brought to The Fugitive. "Let's show them some all-American swagger," he smirks as he prepares to meet the Japanese press. Jones commands the screen every time he appears, and he's simply terrific during the film's tension-filled final meeting with Emperor Hirohito. The man has been more or less unstoppable over the course of the past few years (meeting the high demands of the source material in films like The Sunset Limited and transcending cliches in big movies like Hope Springs and Captain America: The First Avenger), and Emperor is yet another strong outing for the actor.
It's too bad, then, that Emperor really isn't about MacArthur at all, but rather about General Feller's somber soul-searching. To be sure, this material could have been perfectly interesting in its own right: the story of Feller making high-pressure decisions on which members of Japan's top brass deserved to be charged with war crimes is rich with dramatic potential. Bewilderingly, the movie isn't terribly interested in that either, instead spending a large amount of time detailing Feller's pre-war relationship with a Japanese girl. That could have been interesting, too, I suppose, if the filmmakers didn't insist on presenting this relationship in such a painfully conventional manner. Rather than turning these characters into real people, the film presents Feller and Aya as symbols of their respective cultures; a bland east/west relationship defined by little more than furtive glances and soft-spoken pleasantries. Fox is a capable actor and he does a respectable job in the part, but he's stuck in a generally boring movie that has little to do with the real-life figure upon which his character is based.
I suspect that certain viewers who can appreciate the virtues of a simple, classical, old-fashioned historical drama may like the film, but it's hard to shake how routine the whole thing feels. The movie practically oozes respectability—it's clear that everyone involved has gone to great pains to recreate 1945 Japan as accurately as possible (even if the same care isn't applied to the presentation of the events being depicted)—but it feels like a wax museum piece. The movie only feels alive when Jones is onscreen, and that only accounts for 15-20 minutes of the film's 106-minute running time. It's director Peter Webber's third big-screen feature, following the somewhat interesting Girl with a Pearl Earring and the risible Hannibal Rising. After seeing three of his films, the only thing I can conclude is that he's a competent craftsman who is only as good as the material he's working with. His movies look professional, but they lack personality. Emperor feels like a movie just going through the motions. That's a bad thing no matter what kind of movie you're making, but it's particularly deadly to historical dramas. It only adds to the lack of immediacy that is often there by default.
Emperor (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that effectively highlights the film's stellar cinematography. Detail is excellent throughout, allowing viewers to soak in every nuance of the above-par set and costume design. Depth is impressive, and shading is strong throughout. The color palette is generally on the muted side, but there are bright flashes here and there that really pop. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly strong, revving to life during a couple of louder sequences but mostly remaining a subdued, atmospheric track (albeit a rather immersive one). Dialogue is crisp and clean throughout. Supplements include a commentary with Webber and producer Yoko Narahashi, a 15-minute making-of featurette ("Revenge or Justice: The Making of Emperor"), some deleted scenes, photo galleries and a trailer. You also get a digital copy of the film.
Though some are likely to gripe at Emperor for its historical inaccuracies or for its failure to emphasize the most dramatically rich material available, those flaws would be entirely forgivable if only the film were interesting. Sadly, it isn't, and even a juicy supporting turn from Mr. Jones isn't enough to make it worth your time.
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