It’s been an interesting few months for history on film.
A series of releases have raised the ever-present question of historical depiction. One film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” was threatened with Congressional investigations over its portrayal of torture. “Argo” takes vast liberties with the Iranian hostage crisis, but no one except the Iranians seems to mind.
No film is quite as dependent on history as “Emperor,” a serviceable feature film that exists for little more than historical depiction, a starter kit version of the first days of post-WWII Japan. The backdrop is historically grand and the material is promising.
“Emperor” has no less story to tell than whether the American occupiers will end Japan’s 2,000 year-old monarchy or not, something it loves to mention. The year is 1946, the Americans have landed in Japan, and General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones, Hollywood’s go-to general of the moment) has arrived to oversee the reconstruction. At his side is his Japanese expert, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox of ‘Lost,’ who was the talk of the women in the elevator after the film), who lived in Japan before the war. Among their duties is the prosecution of war crimes. The biggest question is what to do with the reclusive Japanese Emperor Hirohito, whose role and complicity in the Pacific War remains debated to this day.
The politicians are pressing for prosecution for Hirohito as a war criminal, a move that would risk triggering a popular revolt and a Russian invasion.
Based on an account by author Shiro Okamoto, “Emperor” is conceived primarily as a history lesson, with a little mystery and a curious romance thrown in. It commits what is supposedly a grand cinematic no-no: being astonishingly self-aware of its own historical importance. There’s a lot of “the decision I’m about to make will impact Japan forever” sorts of voiceovers (in fairness, it was a enormous decision, even if “telling, not showing” is an uncreative way to convey it).
The positive side is that it is very detailed about an interesting moment in time. It trains the spotlight on little known historical events, such as the attempted coup in the morning before Japan’s surrender. The highlight of “Emperor” is the post-bombing Tokyo landscape that it drops us into, with almost every building in Tokyo laying in ruins, and survivors living under whatever can cover them. Emperor marks the way that film can bring dry history lessons to life.
“Emperor” is only an intriguing detective story where it might have been a meditation on memory, justice or power. In different hands it might have been art. The story might have given greatness, but it only gives competence. Somewhat far from “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” this is yet a poignant story about history.