|I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.|
I'm reconstructing the Isle of Japan.
Emperor (2012) *
dir. Peter Webber
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, Eriko Hatsune
Reviewed by Greg Klymkiw
General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and his right ball, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) show up in Japan after the big ones have dropped and have orders to investigate Emperor Hirohito and a whole whack o' his military advisors as war criminals. They're under s strict deadline to do so and the whole affair seems doomed to failure because of the complexity of the issue and also the reluctance of Japanese higher-ups to participate - in some cases expressed by committing suicide. Fair enough - we're purportedly in for a thinking man's version of events during a period that's seldom been dealt with by the movies.
Alas, what a lifeless, dreary affair it all is. Oh, and not much in the way of "thinking" is on display.
The aesthetic offences of Emperor pile up like so many needlessly filled body bags. All stacked up like some beanstalk to the land of the giants betrays how not to make a movie. Fe-fi-fo-fum, I smells da' blood of an Uh-Mare-y-Kun!!! And it shore don't smell good.
The first (and maybe biggest) mistake is choosing to tell the story of the early days of Japan's reconstruction after Hiroshima and Nagasaki from an American perspective. How are we supposed to give a shit whether MacArthur and his protégé Fellers achieve their goals when the Americans are little more than occupying forces in a nation wherein 200,000 innocent civilians have been decimated by Uncle Sam's atom bombs? That Americans have the nerve to seek redress via war crime prosecution is, frankly, abominable and it's impossible to appreciate the film on that level - especially since America is as guilty of war crimes as anyone else in the many wars of the 20th century and beyond.
The second egregious failing is the film's clumsy attempts to insidiously mask the absurdity of all this by offering a two-sides-to-the-story sense of balance. I suspect we're supposed to believe the film's "sensitive" portrait of the interrogated Japanese officials as much as we're to accept Fellers' expression of shock at the shanty town conditions of the Hiroshima survivors by forcing himself into their bar to drown his sorrows (as an act of commiseration) and, lest I forget, the trite, hackneyed manner in which Fellers and his Japanese translator reach mutual respect and understanding of their common goals and differences.
The most horrendous nod to balance are the endless flashbacks to happier times when Fellers woos a Japanese exchange student. This results in a series of mawkish romance sequences that make The Notebook seem tough-minded and cynical. Imagine syrupy romps amongst bamboo trees swaying in the wind as seemingly digital coloured leaves flitter from the heavens. Ugh!
Oh, and this entire romantic subplot is pure fiction - no doubt to temper the foul reality of this shameful period of American history and deliver a feel-good (albeit tear-jerking) impetus for Fellers to "do the right thing".
An ideal way of presenting two sides of a complex struggle is how Clint Eastwood attacked it with his two, near-epic WWII pictures Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers. Clint's a real filmmaker, however, unlike the clowns who made Emperor (in particular the dullard director Peter Webber who has never made a good movie).
Emperor's third dive into the latrine are its sub-par technical achievements - everything from the flat lighting and dull compositions to the production design at all levels that seldom gives the impression that the sets and/or costumes have been imbued with a living and/or lived-in quality. Overall, it has the look of something aimed exclusively for TV, DVD and/or VOD consumption. There's sadly little to recommend it as a feature length drama that has some sense of time, place and sweep. The movie looks cheap - aimed ever-so obviously at audiences who've lost all sense of taste and discrimination.
Last, but not least, the performances of the two leads are downright miserable. Tommy Lee Jones does little more than mug and growl his way through the picture with MacArthur's trademark corn cob pipe jammed twixt his lips. It's like watching Japan's reconstruction being presided over by Popeye the Sailor Man. At least Jones looks like he's having fun.
Matthew Fox, however, is a complete washout. Upon seeing the movie, I was shocked that anyone would cast such a dour, lifeless sad sack with absolutely no screen presence. It feels like he occupies 2/3s of the film's shots, but he fades into the frame with less life than the shadows of the Hiroshima victims (who, incidentally, afforded a few de rigueur mentions in the picture. While watching the movie, I had no idea who Fox even was and during the dull bits (close to 100% of the picture), I was wracking my brain to remember what pictures I'd seen him in. A quick glance at Fox's Wikipedia emtry, I realized why I hadn't seen nor even remembered him - aside from a couple of forgettable movies, he's been almost exclusively working in television.
I don't watch TV. Sadly, watching Emperor, I realized I watch more TV than I give myself credit for since far too many movies these days are little more than TV on a big screen.
"Emperor", from Mongrel Media premieres at TIFF 2012.