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By Philip Martin

This article was published April 12, 2013 at 3:06 a.m.

Emperor is far from the worst movie of the year, but it’s probably the most disappointing 2013 film I’ve seen so far.

It doesn’t start out that way. Early on Tommy Lee Jones imbues his Douglas MacArthur character with a strain of decency that contravenes the expected caricature. Sure, we’ve got the familiar aviator shades and corncob pipe and bluster - “Let’s show ’em some good old-fashioned American swagger,” he announces upon his arrival inTokyo - but we are given a glimpse of the man’s political savvy and respect for the conquered people suddenly under his dominion.

He’s faced with a political problem; there are people in Washington who want the Japanese emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) to hang for war crimes; MacArthur understands that such rough justice could not make American occupation of the country untenable. If their emperor - regarded as a god on earth - is executed, the Japanese are liable to rise up, notwithstanding their recent devastation. But to preserve his political viability back home, the ambitious MacArthur needs some political cover to spare Hirohito’s life; he needs someone to make the legal case that the pacifist emperor could not have prevented the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

And that someone is MacArthur’s protege, Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox, best known for Lost). Like MacArthur, Fellers was a real person, who had some expertise in Japanese customs and psychological warfare and who did participate in the prosecution of Japanese war criminals. Some historians have alleged that he basically helped cover up Hirohito’s role in the war. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (2000), historian Herbert Bix argued that Hirohito was not a passive figurehead during the war but an active participant in its planning and prosecution, and that he delayed surrender to maintain his hold on power. Bix writes that Fellers “immediately on landing in Japan went to work to protect Hirohito from the role he had played during and at the end of the war” and “allowed the major criminal suspects to coordinate their stories so that the emperor would be spared from indictment.”

Now this is interesting stuff - exploring the real politik pursued by MacArthur and Fellers after the war has a lot of cinematic possibility. Unfortunately, Emperor doesn’t trust its audience enough to concentrate on this deep gray legal conundrum, but instead invents a treacly and conventional romance for Fellers (who was married at the time of the occupation). Years before he’d met Aya (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese exchange student in the United States. They’d had a brief cliched affair (that we watch unfold in the tritest way possible, through flashbacks, complete with moony voice overs by Fox) and then she’d abruptly returned to Japan. And now she is missing.

So, in addition to finding out “the truth” about Hirohito, Fellers is also on a quest to find his lost love.

It doesn’t help that Fox seems oddly aloof from the whole business, as though he didn’t want to be too closely associated with his character. He gives us no sense of Fellers as anything but a sensitive, star-crossed lover who seems at odds with what we know about the real Fellers - a complicated man, who after the war became a conservative operative, an early member of the John Birch Society who alienated Dwight David Eisenhower and helped groom Barry Goldwater for his presidential run.

But the makers of Emperor decided there wasn’t enough demand for that sort of movie, so they’ve given us this plodding, obvious movie that underlines and explains and panders. One senses the filmmakers knew there was a great story here. But they thought we were too dull to get it.

Emperor 77 Cast: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune, Takataro Kataoka Director: Peter Webber Rating: PG-13, for language Running time:106 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 04/12/2013

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