Wrapping a history lesson in a romantic melodrama can make for a lively movie, but only if the love story is juicier than the educational narrative. That’s not the case with “Emperor,” both of whose story lines remain stubbornly dry. This drama is serious and well made but will appeal primarily to those with an interest in the devastated setting (1945 Tokyo) and the enigmatic title character (Emperor Hirohito).
The action centers on a genuine but fictionalized figure, U.S. Gen. Bonner Fellers. He’s played by “Lost’s” Matthew Fox, whose chiseled features have an appropriately 1940s-Hollywood look. The American occupation’s supreme commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), has given Fellers 10 days to do the impossible: Determine which Japanese leaders should be tried and executed as war criminals and which should be rehabilitated to help the Yanks rebuild the country.
Hirohito is on Fellers’s list, but information about his possible culpability is hard to find. Top imperial advisers such as Teizaburo Sekiya (the real grandfather of one of the movie’s producers, Yoko Narahashi) won’t allow the Americans to come near the man, who is still regarded as literally divine.
Tentatively incorporating a third genre, “Emperor” sometimes imagines itself a film noir. Fellers wanders Tokyo’s mean streets, narrating in tough-guy parlance that clashes with his occasional forays into courtly Japanese.
The script cleverly doubles the characters with whom Fellers contends. The unseeable Hirohito is echoed by the unfindable Aya (Eriko Hatsune), the Japanese woman Fellers has loved since they were college classmates in 1930s Colorado. The general seems to spend as much time looking for Aya as he does investigating Hirohito.
The movie’s title itself is neatly ambiguous. While Hirohito stays in the shadows, another emperor is conspicuous: MacArthur, who exercised nearly absolute control over postwar Japan and reportedly had his eye on the American presidency. Although the role is secondary, it’s the most savory, and Jones chews it thoroughly.
“Emperor” was directed by Peter Webber, who carefully reconstructed the fire-bombed Tokyo in a burned-out New Zealand industrial site. But the man who made the lustrous “Girl With a Pearl Earring” can hardly be expected to set a whole movie amid ruins. He also simulates the gilded interiors of the Imperial Palace and sets many scenes at elegant traditional Japanese country houses.
Most picturesque are the slo-mo flashbacks of Aya and Fellers at play in a pre-war bamboo forest, with her bright red dress framed by green stalks. The actual Fellers was apparently less dashing than the movie version, and Aya didn’t even exist. But during purely visual moments like these, “Emperor” almost brings their love to life.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At area theaters. In English and Japanese with English subtitles. Contains violence, brief profanity and extensive smoking. 106 minutes.