Emperor,” a rare Japan-U.S. joint production, aims squarely for that old-school “Casablanca” vibe, a tragic romance set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue, with mixed results. Based on the book “His Majesty’s Salvation” by Shiro Okamoto, the topic is one guaranteed to raise eyebrows: Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives in Tokyo in August 1945 following Japan’s surrender and he instructs his subordinate, intelligence officer Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), to immediately begin an investigation into Emperor Hirohito’s role in the war, and whether or not he should be put on trial for war crimes. If guilty, the Emperor would hang.
Fellers is an old Japan hand and MacArthur judges him as the best man to make the call, though rival officers see him as in bed with the Japanese, rather literally, since Fellers is also trying to track down the whereabouts of his prewar lover, Aya (Eriko Hatsune), who may well have been killed in the Allied firebombing air raids.
The movie follows their relationship in flashback, from when they met at college in America — where she was a rare Japanese exchange student in those days — and in Japan, where Fellers pens his thesis on “The Psychology of the Japanese Soldier” with advice from Aya’s uncle, Gen. Kajima (Toshiyuki Nishida). In the face of impending war and rabid antiforeigner sentiment in Japan, Fellers and Aya are tragically separated. Now back with the occupation, Fellers discreetly has his driver Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda) try to find her, as he wanders the bombed-out, rain-swept streets of Tokyo getting morosely drunk on sake like any classic film-noir hero.
The romantic side of the film remains fairly tepid; this is no Bogey-Bergman pairing. Aya is the typically elusive Japanese lover who forever remains one notch beyond her Western lover’s grasp due to Japan’s “inscrutable” social strictures.
Indeed, director Peter Webber (“The Girl With the Pearl Earring”) dives deep into the old clichés of Westerners’ inability to understand Japan — complete with mandatory detours into honne (true feelings) and tatemae (public face) and dialogue such as “Nothing in Japan is ever black and white” — as Fellers struggles to find out exactly what went on in the Imperial inner circle during the war. Yet this is turned around nicely, showing how the byzantine politics of the cloistered Japanese Imperial circle are mirrored in the equally politicized atmosphere of the Allied occupation HQ.
For many viewers, the success or failure of “Emperor” will no doubt rest on its interpretation of Hirohito’s wartime guilt or lack thereof. (And you can already hear the Hinomaru-brandishing right-wingers warming up their sound trucks.) Was he the hands-on leader who personally approved the attack on Pearl Harbor? Or was he the man of peace who eventually resisted the militarists and ended the war? “Emperor” offers evidence for both views, accentuating the murky moral territory that comes with war. If the Japanese aerial terror-bombing of civilians in Nanjing was a war crime, then what was the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo, which incinerated over 100,000 civilians? “Emperor” is inclusive in its opinions but short on conclusions, save for one: History is a fudge.