MRR Review: "Emperor"

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A historical war drama directed by Peter Webber starring Tommy Lee Jones & Matthew Fox in the lead roles. As the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, Gen. Fellers (Fox) is tasked with deciding whether or not Emperor Hirohito will be hanged as a war criminal. Influencing his ruling is his quest to find Aya (Eriko Hatsune), an exchange student he met years earlier in the U.S.
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MRR Review: "Emperor"

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 117 minutes
Release Date: March 8, 2013
Directed by: Peter Webber
Genre: Drama/History/War

Romantic movies set during major historical conflicts have a long history of success. From a tale about a bar in a far-off land to the story of an English patient, these tales captivate and provide insight into an often-marginalized battle or front in their wars. "Emperor" takes place after the war and provides an amazing look into the events that transpire during wars. The film struggles in many places. It is a decent choice for war buffs or romantic drama fans, but it is unlikely to captivate many viewers who prefer films outside of those genres due to a bit of a split personality.

"Emperor" follows the pursuits of General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) as he takes on a case from General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones). The case is a pivotal moment in world history. Fellers is tasked with determining the level of complicity of Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) in the military strategies and tactics employed during the war. Along the way, Fellers discovers a lost love, Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), and attempts to track her down. This love story element adds to the film. Although the two elements struggle to mesh, the premise is solid.

The acting in the film helps elevate it above many period dramas. Tommy Lee Jones creates a believable General MacArthur, complete with the trademark American swagger that the firebrand general was known for. He easily dominates many scenes and delivers memorable one-liners ripped right from history books. Fox is believable in his role as General Fellers, and the film rests almost entirely on his shoulders in many key places. Kataoka and Hatsune both perform admirably alongside their American peers. Kataoka is believable as a man who was seen as the guiding light of his country during the war. Hatsune's performance as Aya is believable, and the obvious chemistry between Fox and Hatsune carries through to viewers and makes the romantic element of the film shine.

The cinematography of the film struggles with juxtaposition in similar fashion with the pacing, script, and direction. Sweeping views of some of the most-loved landmarks of Japan create breathtaking backdrops that are perfect for a period piece. This is captured beautifully and is one of the highlights of the film. The struggles come mainly with transitions. It is all too apparent when Fellers falls into a flashback of his earlier time in Japan. The camera shifts violently between the two stories, instead of helping mesh them into a cohesive whole. Transitions are jarring and seem out of place in many areas, highlighting the lack of connection between the romantic and mystery elements instead of helping to erase the lines between them.

The script tells two stories fairly well. The love story involving Fellers and Aya and the mystery surrounding how Hirohito was involved in the bombing of Pearl Harbor both become compelling narratives that arise from the script. Unfortunately, they also give the movie its split personality. Viewers are likely to feel they are watching two films smashed together. The script and camera both jump back and forth between the stories. The story elements from both are almost completely independent. This creates an obvious flaw and is likely to leave moviegoers sighing when their favorite part of the film is shelved in favor of the other story for any given time.

It is possible that this flaw in "Emperor" is the director's choice. Webber seems to be trying exceptionally hard to tell two engaging stories instead of one. He gets amazing performances out of both his English-speaking and native Japanese casts, but the best acting in the world struggles to tie the two stories together. His choice to focus on the relationship between Aya and Fellers is also likely to draw some ire from hardcore history buffs, who may easily discover that Fellers was married at the time of the Hirohito investigation and is buried in Arlington Cemetery as a war hero alongside his wife.

The dichotomy and juxtaposition of the two stories do not fully derail the experience. The difficulties meshing the two elements prevent the movie from rising to greatness outside of its genres, but fans of war movies and period romances alike are likely to enjoy "Emperor" for those elements. Even though the ending of the story is common knowledge to history buffs and high-school history students, the mystery surrounding Hirohito is portrayed so well that the film is likely to find a home on the shelves of many fans.

Rating 3 out of 5