An Imperial Performance

Emperor poster from Scott Holleran

Yeah, yeah, I know. G.I. Joe: Retaliation is now out, and that is going to be gobbling up the movie news as every critic wants to discuss it and it almost certainly gets top dollar at the box office.

But, you know what? Sometimes I want to see a movie that’s about something other than stuff blowing up.

Emperor is a really interesting film for several reasons. First is that it cast Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, No Country for Old Men) as Gen. Douglas MacArthur – if ever there was an actor and a historical figure that seem like a perfect match, this is it. It also stars Matthew Fox (Lost, Vantage Point) as Gen. Bonner Fellers, the film’s main character. Set immediately after the Japanese surrender, the film follows Gen. Feller as he is given ten days to decide what should be done with the Emperor Hirohito of Japan – should he be arrested and tried as a war criminal? Should he be deposed? Should he be left on the throne? Meanwhile, Gen. Fellers also uses as much spare time as he can trying to figure out what happened to his Japanese ex-girlfriend.

The second reason Emperor is so interesting is that it is a freshman film. Two of the three film-making companies that made this movie, Japan-based United Performers Studio and Hollywood-based Fellers Film, both run by Yoko Narahashi, have never made any movies before. While Narahashi has experience working on other films for bigger studios, this is her first attempt at her own film. The third production company, Krasnoff Foster Productions, is also very new at this, having only made two other films: The Soloist and When in Rome. Yeah, we are swimming in some seriously indie waters here.

My verdict? For a freshman film, it’s a really good one.

The acting is excellent in this film. You really feel for Fox’s Gen. Fellers, and can sympathize with him. Masayoshi Haneda (The Last Samurai, The Ramen Girl) does a brilliant turn as Gen. Fellers’s translator and assistant, Takahashi, turning what could easily have been a bit part that nobody cared about into a full-bodied, compelling character in his own right. And of course, Tommy Lee Jones’s Gen. MacArthur is a joy to watch. Jones makes MacArthur into a lovable, charismatic, yet potty-mouthed jerk, just the sort of role Jones excels at. And I would be doing Eriko Hatsune (Norwegian Wood, Girls for Keeps) a disservice if I didn’t mention her brilliantly understated performance as Aya, Gen. Fellers’s past love interest.

The film is also stunningly beautiful. Director Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring, Hannibal Rising) must be applauded for making a film as visually enticing as this. The beautiful images alone are enough to recommend this movie.  Even the establishing shots – those shots that tell us where we are or what building we’re in, and are the most easy shots to put in a shoddy, shortcut effort on – are carefully framed to convey not only location, but time of day, mood, and the mental state of the characters. This is eye candy at its best.

Huh? Oh, sorry, I was distracted by the pretty screenshot. What were we talking about?

Huh? Oh, sorry, I was distracted by the pretty screenshot. What were we talking about?

Not that the film is perfect by any stretch. In fact, the film’s screenplay is its biggest weakness. Based on Shiro Okamoto’s book His Majesty’s Salvation (which, to be fair, I haven’t read), the screenplay by Vera Blasi (Tortilla Soup, Woman on Top) and David Klass (Walking Tall, Kiss the Girls) is a bit of a mess. The film time-skips so much, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of when things are supposedly happening. For a large part of the middle of the film, it seems everyone’s forgotten about the main plot – figuring out whether the Emperor ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor – and we spend all our time watching Gen. Fellers reminisce about Aya. It gets rather dull in spots, and then before we know it we’re suddenly told we only have hours to meet the deadline on deciding what to do with the Emperor.

The screenplay is also formulaic to a fault. If you have seen lots of historical drama films, as I have, the plot feels like every other historical drama film put together. Maybe it’s because it is a freshman film, and so the filmmakers didn’t want to take too many risks, but the end result is that the plot just feels like unoriginal, well-worn territory.

One thing I do appreciate about the screenplay, though, is its portrayal of Japan immediately before the war. Here in America, we know so much about the rise of the Nazis in Germany and what was going on in Europe just before World War II broke out, but we almost never hear about what was going on in Japan at the same time that led them to war.

Still, it feels like the actors and director were handed an inferior screenplay and just decided to make the most out of it. Luckily, they brought their A-game and the result is a well-performed visual feast. A very good movie for those who just want to take a break from action-y explosion-fests.

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2 Responses to An Imperial Performance

  1. AuntLeesie says:

    Great review!

  2. Pingback: Third Time Awesome! | Cat Flag

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