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In this historical drama, General Douglas MacArthur (Jones), the supreme commander of the occupying forces in Japan after that nation’s Emperor Hirohito (Kataoka) surrendered and thereby ended World War II, has been given 10 days by the White House to determine the emperor’s complicity in war crimes. To prepare the case, MacArthur turns to Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers (Fox), a Japan expert, whose study of Japanese ways and culture began years earlier after meeting Aya (Hatsune) when she was an exchange student in the States; he later followed her to Japan.
The film is an act of nostalgia, a study of power, and a romantic memoir told in muted colors, shades, and tones. Fox sounds like a young Henry Fonda, without trying to do a faithful imitation; Jones captures MacArthur’s certainty, swagger, and authority. Fellers and Aya’s story is told through a series of layered flashbacks, while his investigation into Hirohito’s culpability is a movement forward that’s marked by interviews with prominent individuals in Japan’s military, political, and imperial branches.
Mostly a military and historical detective story told through Fellers’ interactions with these reticent leaders who speak in innuendo and metaphor, the film attempts to arrive at some sense of the emperor’s role. The most closely examined events are the decision to invade Pearl Harbor – did the emperor instigate the attack, just sign off on it, or actually oppose it? – and the precise role the emperor played in the decision to surrender.
The film bites off much more than it can chew, raising far more issues and personalities than it can successfully weave into one overall narrative. Too much occurs in the past, the number of characters and amount of war history bog things down, and the events in the present are no less crowded and confused. Emperor, however, is so sophisticated in its ambitions, mature in its narrative, and expert in its execution that the film’s failures are more honorable than fatal.