Emperor (in theaters March 8th) is not your typical action-heavy World War II flick. Rather, it concentrates on the American rebuilding effort of Japan after the end of the Great War and the healing of Japanese-American relations. General Bonner Fellers (played by Matthew Fox) is tasked by General Douglas MacArthur (played by Tommy Lee Jones) to decide whether or not the Japanese Emperor Hirohito will be hanged for war crimes. Fellers meets with various members of the Japanese empire and government, all the while looking for a Japanese girl named Aya (played by Eriko Hatsune), whom he’d met years prior in the United States as an exchange student in college.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its photography. The destruction caused by American bombings in Japan is beautifully recreated in all its grotesque glory. The personal homes of the delegates Fellers meets with are authentic Japanese abodes; the delegates themselves are played by Japanese actors, speaking heavily accented English in many cases. The most striking visual parallel in the film is that of the beautiful Japanese Imperial palace against the utilitarian aspect of the American headquarters.
The film thus sets itself up as a telling exposé on the significant cultural rifts that existed between an occupying Western country and its Oriental subordinates, but while it brings this issue to light, it continues to distract itself by developing a love story that feels extraneous and painting the portrait of a gluttonous, self-indulging General that may or may not have Japan’s best interests at heart. MacArthur is often shown taking pictures of himself around the headquarters until it’s made explicit that he’s gunning for the American presidency. Fellers’ love and subsequent search for Aya upon arriving in Japan after the war is a plot line whose sole purpose is to establish Fellers’ “righteousness” for the investigation, since he has a “love for Japan”.
Both subplots feel forced, as does the writing at times, in an effort made to make the movie appear more dramatic.
It’s not until the final scene that the end goal of the film’s objective as a contrast between two cultures is poignantly felt.