The small-scale but touching historical drama Emperor, directed by Peter Webber, begins with archival footage of the Enola Gay dropping the atomic bomb that incinerated over 100,000 men, women, and children in a single flash. Indeed, this is an atrocity, but calling acts of war atrocities and bringing war criminals to justice are the privileges of the victors, and that is, in part, what this film is about. Responsible for rebuilding Japan, General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) sends out his men to arrest suspected war criminals. Hideki Tojo, it is clear, will hang, but the fate of Emperor Hirohito is a delicate matter. The execution of the divine emperor, Mac fears, could lead to chaos, and so the crusty, pipe-chewing old soldier assigns General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) with the challenging task of finding evidence to support Hirohito’s exoneration.
With Harry Truman and many Americans expecting the execution of the emperor, General Fellers’ credibility could come into question since he is clearly “a Japan lover.” In Japan before the war, he learned to love the culture, and he fell in love with Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese girl studying in America. On top of that, he was responsible for diverting a bombing that threatened Aya’s town at the end of the war.
With sobering images of Tokyo in shambles, its citizens living in squalid shanties, Emperor, with its modest scope, establishes a gripping setting for Fellers’ modestly suspenseful investigation. There is little action in this film, little intensity, but its quietness suits its portrayal of a culture whose gentle half has been ruined by its potential for savagery in the name of devotion. Fox’s performance as Fellers is an invested one, and Tommy Lee Jones is not on screen enough to ruin the film. Indeed, he restrains himself somewhat and doesn’t over-bluster. Give Jones a chance to talk about dragging in a suspect “by the balls” and he’s happy.
This is not a panoramic historical epic. Instead, it is a narrowly focused, touching story, and that narrow focus is its strength. We sympathize with Fellers’ search for Aya, a search intertwined with his efforts to find substantial evidence that Hirohito tried to prevent the war and that once the war had begun he was powerless to stop it. In addition, the film provides an interesting look at the paradoxes of a culture that wreaked havoc on Asia, and it brings up many questions about justice and responsibility for the countless horrors of the most epic war in history.