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Monday, December 30, 2013


And now for part two of the dullest Japanese/ American double bill to come along in a very long time...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, is tasked with investigating the Japanese Emperor Hirohito's part in the war. To do so he enlists the aid of General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), the foremost expert on Japanese culture but along with holding the fate of the revered Emperor in his hands, he has another mission in Japan that is far more personal.

What we thought

You wait all year for a Japanese-based American film to come along when suddenly two come along at once. Along with the decidedly more populist 47 Ronin (which is in crappy 3D and everything!), we have Emperor, a film destined for the art circuit, but one that frankly doesn't even deserve even the limited cinematic release it is receiving. Especially when so many more interesting art films go straight to DVD (if even that) in this country.

Emperor isn't a terrible film by any means as it is carried through by both a lively performance from the always great Tommy Lee Jones and a story that is fundamentally interesting to anyone with even the vaguest interest in 20th century history, but it is a movie sorely lacking in any sense of the cinematic and is one that is desperately in need of a shot of life in its cold, procedural veins.

Films about World War II are a dime a dozen so films that deal with the aftermath of the war are always a fascinating alternative. While it would be interesting to see more from a German perspective, especially as Germany transformed itself from the horrors of Nazism to a particularly powerful form of liberal progressiveness in less than two decades, there is unquestionably plenty of gold to mine from the story of post-war Japan.

What with the sheer, obvious evil of Nazi Germany however, it's easy to overlook just how awful Japan's part was in the same war. Not only were they shameless, unprovoked aggressors against both the USA and, most especially, against their own Far East neighbours, the cruelty in the way they treated both prisoners of war and those they conquered has gone down in infamy.

As such, what we have here is a story about a nation trying to pick themselves up from a war they lost in the most horrifying way imaginable, while at the same time immediately trying to distance themselves from an old mind set that turned them into a group of, effectively, merciless, bloodthirsty war mongers. With all this going on, there is also the major mission on the Allies side to determine which of the Japanese ruling class was responsible for Japan's part in the war.

Emperor has some of the former in the background but is mostly interested in the latter but, by going about it like an episode of Law and Order: Japan, it loses just about all of the emotional power that the subject demands. To be honest though, it doesn't even properly live up to its premise on even an intellectual level as it feels mostly like a cursory glance at a very involved subject and ends up as something far less satisfying that it should by all rights be.

Admittedly, the film does come alive every time Tommy Lee Jones comes on screen and most of his scenes, especially his climactic showdown with the Emperor himself are really pretty good in and of themselves, but they are undone by most of the rest of the film which centres around Matthew Fox's intense lead-investigator-type character.

Fox is fine in his role as, between Party of Five and Lost, he can now play the part of the intense everyman in his sleep but unfortunately asleep is how he mostly comes across in the film. It's a bland character, portrayed by an actor on autopilot, conducting a very uncinematic, episodic, procedural investigation, while occasionally flashing back to a narratively underdeveloped romance from his past. No matter how fundamentally interesting a story this may be, it rapidly deflates every single time we return to Fox and his moping character who, coincidentally, happens to be by far the main part of the film.

It's kind of a great pity but feel free to ignore Emperor and pick up one of English author, Kazuo Ishiguro's early novels instead for far more engrossing look at the same time period.

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