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Emperor (Blu-ray Review)

14 Aug, 2013 By: John Latchem

Box Office $3.35 million
$19.98 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for violent content, brief strong language and smoking (historical).
Stars Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune, Toshiyuki Nishida, Masayoshi Haneda, Kaori Momoi, Colin Moy, Masatoshi Nakamura, Masatô Ibu, Isao Natsuyagi, Takatarô Kataoka.

There’s a fascinating story to be told in the American effort to rebuild Japan after World War II. High on the initial agenda for U.S. forces was what to do with the Japanese leaders responsible for pushing the country to war, most notably Emperor Hirohito, a revered figure in Japanese society.

As if tremendous cultural barriers and resentments fostered by years of bitter fighting weren’t enough of an obstacle to a lasting peace, deposing the emperor and hanging him for war crimes could have exacerbated the situation. We know from history that the American occupation, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, exonerated Hirohito from his role in Japan’s military aggression of the 1930s and 1940s, allowing him to remain a figurehead ruler in exchange for renouncing his claim to divinity.

Emperor delves into the process by which Hirohito escaped prosecution. MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) sees the successful reconstruction of the country as a stepping stone to the presidency of the United States. He tasks the investigation of the emperor to Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), who emerges as the expert in Japanese culture among MacArthur’s inner circle.

Fellers sets about tracking down anyone who could shed light on the emperor’s role in planning the war. But what could have been a riveting procedural is muddled by a series of flashbacks to a pre-war romance between Fellers and a Japanese girl that seems to want to explain both his affinity for Japan and give him a personal goal in his investigation. The relationship is historically murky at best, and producer Yoko Narahashi admits in the bonus material that the subplot was extrapolated from correspondence she read between Fellers and a Japanese woman.

As it is, the movie struggles to find solid footing until its Fellers can find a measure of catharsis in his personal life and focus on his interviews with high-level Japanese officials, which provide some of the best scenes in the movie. But Fox’s leading-man presence is so underwhelming that it’s hard to reconcile that he’s supposedly playing a general, a fact we can accept only because the person he’s playing was one in real life.

The film looks great, however, contrasting the stark devastation of the Japanese landscape and its bombed-out buildings and mountains of wreckage from planes and military hardware, with the serene beauty of the emperor’s palace poking into the skyline as an omnipresent reminder of what’s at stake.

The extras on the Blu-ray reveal just how much visual effects work was involved in rendering the devastation in Japanese, a stark reminder of how ubiquitous CGI has become in filmmaking, even among pictures as small in scope as this one. Unfortunately, the making-of featurette and a commentary with Narahashi and director Peter Webber are much too focused on the technical aspects of the filmmaking and production process. A separate documentary about the historical truths behind the film’s story would have been a welcome, if not necessary, inclusion.

The Blu-ray also includes a batch of inconsequential deleted scenes.

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