Emperor | Movie review
Tommy Lee Jones brings his swagger to postwar Japan.
With Japan’s cities still smoking, the post-WWII occupation begins in earnest: Gen. Douglas MacArthur (the effortlessly lordly Tommy Lee Jones) dons his sunglasses and descends to the tarmac with the curt order, “Let’s show them some good old-fashioned American swagger.” The collision of this man with the surrendered Hirohito (Takatarô Kataoka), viewed by his people as a living god and unaccustomed to eye contact, is the stuff of legend. An excellent movie about their meeting, Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, already exists, emphasizing the fallen leader’s strangeness. Here, those humbling scenes play more like pinkie-to-mouth Downton Abbey outtakes, bruised honor chafing with oh-no-he-didn’t gruffness. MacArthur spares Japan a potentially ruinous psychonational blow by leaning into military mercy.
It’s a moment big enough to dwell on, the hard man finding his penchant for peace. So why does Emperor push the real drama aside for a thoroughly misjudged central plot involving MacArthur’s number two, Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox, a weight-free presence), tasked with privately assessing Hirohito’s culpability? Already, this gives the junior general way too much credit—in truth, he was asked to coordinate evidence to support MacArthur’s dovish leanings. Worse, the movie ladles on a gooey subplot involving Fellers’s abandoned Japanese mistress, a painfully obvious metaphor for learning to love the enemy. Director Peter Webber, who once mined social unease from the painterly Girl with a Pearl Earring, is out of his depth; this is a movie in desperate need of a no-nonsense Howard Hawks.