Top critical review
8 people found this helpful
What could have been a riveting historical political thriller falls short
on 6 December 2014
Despite an impressive recreation of a devastated Japan in the wake of the Allied victory, Emperor is one of those films that should be a lot better but feels like it’s had most of the life sapped out of it in the development process to avoid offending anyone. The material promises much drama and intrigue as Tommy Lee Jones’ General Macarthur assigns Matthew Fox’s Japanese expert to decide whether or not to try Emperor Hirohito for war crimes, but his efforts to establish whether he was responsible for the war or could have averted it are rendered rather mundane despite the inherent tension in the situation. While special effects and production design create a convincingly scarred landscape, we have to be told by Fox’s voice over narration that this is a country that could descend into chaos, disorder and revolution and that the Emperor’s execution could provide the spark because the film never manages to convey that mood. There’s surprisingly little weight or genuine unease to the film as it solemnly wanders through the ruins between polite conversations. It’s not helped by Fox’s flashbacks to before the war and his relationship with a Japanese girl he met at college (where he was evidently a very mature student): while these do eventually shed some light on the Japanese mindset in the run up to the war, there’s no real passion here, leaving the relationship feeling like a plot device.
Jones gives good MacArthur, getting the voice right without descending into a W.C. Fields impersonation, but despite dominating the poster he’s barely in the film. Fox is solid enough in the lead but never really dominates the film, which is hardly surprising since his much more interesting real-life character has been almost unrecognisably watered down and so much of his part seems to consist of staring morosely into space as he moons after his lost love. At times it panders to the Japanese market’s sensibilities, one character justifying the unmentioned mass atrocities of the Rape of Nanking by comparing it to the Allied nations’ colonial histories or raising the pre-war American oil embargo on Japan without going into the context. Things improve in the last half hour or so as it recounts the events surrounding the Japanese surrender and when MacArthur finally meets the Emperor there’s a brief frisson of excitement that hints at what the film could have been, but it still never really grips as what could have been a riveting historical political thriller becomes a mildly interesting stroll that avoids most of the real local points of interest.
The UK Blu-ray offers a fine transfer, but in the wrong ratio – while the film was released in US cinemas in 2.35:1, it’s a 1.78:1 transfer. There’s a different extras package too: the director’s commentary, making of documentary and deleted scenes from the US release are gone, the UK disc offering a shorter featurette, trailer, B-roll footage and cast and crew soundbite interviews all culled from the Electronic Press Kit.