The decision not to hang Emperor Hirohito for war crimes now seems—nearly 70 years later—the right choice to the general public. Emperor is based on an apparently untranslated book by Shiro Okamoto. Under ineffectual direction by Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring), it exists mainly as a chance to see Tommy Lee Jones playing Gen. Douglas MacArthur during his days as the "gaijin shogun."
It's 1945 in Occupied Japan, and Washington has given the military 10 days to decide whether or not Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) should be tried and scaffolded for the Imperial Army's many war crimes. The formidable MacArthur has delegated the research to a second in command, Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox). I'm sorry to say that, in this version, Fellers has a Japanese sweetie he met back at college—a star-crossed romances with an exchange student named Aya (Eriko Hatsune). As in Argo, it's not a moral matter not to fictionalize this story that's aggravating. What is aggravating is the artistic decision to fictionalize it in such a banal way.
Emperor baits and switches, preparing, then stalling, the meeting between the Hirohito and the American Caesar. The encounter is terribly sentimental when it does comes: Hirohito is such a little chap in his spectacles and his 1920s Bertie Wooster formal clothes, and there are tears all around. The film makes Fellers, who was later a leading light of the John Birch Society, a multiculti man. He understands from his Japanese studies that the emperor communicates not in words but in tanka poetry. Fox, who is improving from his television days, is military enough, and Jones hardly has to stir himself except to shift that ludicrous corncob pipe in his mouth. He corners this film's humor: someone having trouble with MacArthur's various titles is told, "'Supreme Commander' will do."
If you can't take this movie for history, what may it be taken as? As romance it's not believable. Much of the history is censored, including the rumored "Operation Blacklist" involving the pressure from above to clear the names of the royal family. What we get instead is a moment of bogus relativism in the form of a Japanese cabinet minister upbraiding the West for its colonialism: "We were just following your fine example!" That line, dumb enough to poison the movie for the following 10 minutes, obscures the fact that Japan had been a bad neighbor since the 1500s.
Finally swept aside is the solid evidence by newer historians that Hirohito approved the use of poison gas more than 300 times during the Chinese invasions. Part of the peace process is understanding the reasons your enemies had for war, and acknowledging the lies your side told. But what goes on in Emperor is more or less a whitewash.
PG-13; 106 min.