"Emperor" isn’t the worst historical melodrama ever made, but it’s still the genre at its worst. These movies tend to have really narrow audiences: you have to be invested enough in the era/culture being explored to not mind being pandered to; and your tastes have to be middlebrow enough to suffer silently through the rote romantic plot that always serves the structural backbone. So pick your poison: would you rather watch Matthew Fox feign interest while he investigates General Hirohito’s guilt in the genesis of World War II, or while he longs lovingly for his lost Japanese lady-love?
Fox stars as historical figure Bonner Fellers; assigned by supreme commander Douglas MacArthur (an even-more-sarcastic-than-usual Tommy Lee Jones,) to determine Hirohito’s culpability, and whether he should be held accountable for war crimes. Fellers loves the nation’s history, and much of the movie watches as he discusses Japan’s 2,000 year old culture, their traditions of honor and loyalty, and the undying devotion the people have towards their leader. It’s unfortunate: the film spends so much time telling you how fascinating Japanese culture is that it hardly even shows you how fascinating Japanese culture is. (One set of sequences, where Fellers converses and argues with a traditionally oriented Japanese man before and after the war, with the slight shifts in power dynamics highlighted, is the clear bright spot.)
That’s half of the movie. The other half features Fox’s search for his lost lover; a Japanese girl he encountered first at a university, then again when he traveled to her home country to see her prior to the war. This is the part of the film you don’t even have to bother watching; you can imagine it: golden hued flashbacks, scenes of him staring longingly at her picture, emotional conversations with the girl’s left-behind family. It feels so rote and overdone that you end up longing to return to the shallow investigation of Japanese culture that makes up the other half.
I wouldn’t mind so much if journeyman filmmaker Peter Webber, who’s been in director jail for six years following the disastrous "Hannibal Rising" but frames and lights scenes with competence here, didn’t pull the old direct-to-video switch on us. That’s right: just like Bruce Willis in a super-cheap 50 Cent movie, pretty much all of Lee Jones’ scenes take place on the same set; and they add up to about a combined ten minutes. His name may be on the top of the poster, but I doubt he was on set shooting for more than three days. It’s a classic bait-and-switch, but it still smarts. If he can’t be bothered to stick around for the whole story, I don’t see why we’re expected to.