September 30, 2013
Watching the trailers for Emperor, I feared a revisionist docudrama in the works, suggesting that General MacArthur had an active curiosity about Emperor Hirohito's possible culpability as a "war criminal."
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. In the end, Emperor has MacArthur simply using Fellers to rubber-stamp the outcome he'd planned for all along.
In any case, the narrative is so meandering and muddled it'd be hard to read any political or ideological point of view into what takes place on screen.
The problem is a script that tries to do two incongruent things at once: Fellers investigating the emperor's war-time record, on the one hand, and chasing down Aya, his long-lost love, on the other.
Neither ends up going anywhere worth making a movie about. Only at the very end does a compelling story emerge, when Fellers stumbles on an account of an attempted palace coup in the final hours before the surrender.
The best cinematic account of those events is Japan's Longest Day (1967), with Toshiro Mifune as die-hard War Minister General Korechika Anami.
The argument in that film and this one is that since the coup was an attempt to prevent the surrender against the ostensible will of the emperor, he must have been in the right about everything else too.
The moral logic doesn't follow, but it's a more interesting thesis that whatever else Fellers was up to in Emperor.
I would have dispensed with the romance from the start, using it instead as an excuse for Fellers to hook up with Aya's uncle, (the fictitious) General Kajima, played by the great character actor Toshiyuki Nishida.
Together they would stitch together an account of the attempted coup. This way, the script could tread firm and fairly objective historical ground while describing in depth a series of truly dramatic events.
Emperor is a good example of a "historical" drama where a little more fiction would have served the available facts much better.