Wow, at last! A truly great film that dramatizes the conflicts of American Armed Forces in Japan in the years after World War II through the lens of an American-Japanese romance has arrived.
Actually, that film was "Sayanora," and it was made in 1957. An impossibly good-looking American man falls in love with an equally gorgeous Japanese woman, but the vast cultural differences of their two respective nations threaten to drive them apart.
The 2013 total misfire "Emperor" is about an impossibly good-looking American who falls hard for a gorgeous Japanese woman. Only this time, instead of Marlon Brando's smile-sneer that subtly conveys an open-hearted but smug temperament, we get Matthew Fox, who brings all the subtlety of a runway model to his performance. At least he looks good in his uniform.
Fox heads up the Occupation Army's investigation into Emperor Hirohito's role in helping to foment the imperialism that led to Pearl Harbor and the catalog of horrors like the brutal mistreatment of prisoners of war and the Rape of Nanking. Except that here, it's a one-man show, as Fox spends much of his time brooding over pots of saki, hulking over his typewriter and alternately berating and apologizing to his Japanese aide.
There must have been dozens, if not hundreds, of experts in Allied intelligence poring over every aspect of the Japanese war machine. Somehow, I think they might have contributed to the real-life investigation.
Here, Fox presides over a few gung-ho fellow officers who do their research by pinning up a few newspaper clippings and photos on a board. To add some conflict, there's a conniving fellow general as subtle as a high school mean girl.
If nothing else, "Emperor" provides an object lesson in how a film production is done in by viewing its work as very, very important. Those sitdown interviews for the inevitable "Making Of" addendum to a DVD release are always painful to watch, but the creatives on this one are so taken with their own work that it's best viewed as an inadvertent parody.
The script is riddled with howlers, my favorite being the Japanese man who describes his national character by beginning, "The Japanese are a very selfish people." Not that we see any Japanese, other than a few lost souls amidst the rubble of bombed-out Tokyo, one or two war criminals and a climactic scene between the emperor and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
MacArthur, the gruff, outspoken, outsized general who oversaw the occupation, comes complete with trademark long-stemmed pipe and sunglasses. Tommy Lee Jones's portrayal reminded me of the dean in "National Lampoon's Animal House," as though the Japanese people are misbehaving frat boys.
As for the emperor, whether consciously or not, the film reduces him to a cipher. Unlike that other film about a latter-day Asian potentate done in by the war, "The Last Emperor" (or, for that matter, "The Queen"), we see nothing of the man, only the living symbol of a nation.
What really dooms the film, however, is the parallel soggy love story. The decision to exonerate the emperor was controversial then, and remains so today. One needs only to look at the difference in the way modern Germany and Japan view their actions in the war, let alone nationalistic nut jobs like Yukio Mishima, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who, with his cadre of boy toys, tried to reinstitute emperor worship.
You won't get that here. Just artificially constructed historical reconstructions and star-crossed lovers straight out of the "Casablanca" playbook.
What's especially galling is the reduction of both Japanese and Americans to crude stereotypes. Fox's character is supposed to be versed in Japanese culture. Yet, when he finally meets the emperor, he tries to shake his hand instead of bowing. Then he slouches in his chair and lights a cigarette. This is roughly the equivalent of giving Queen Elizabeth a pat on the ass and telling her, "Nice rack."
If you really want to prolong the agony, there's a director's commentary.
Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).