After the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, General Fellers (Lost's Matthew Fox) - an American officer with contacts behind the bamboo curtain - is tasked by General Douglas MacArthur (an impressive Tommy Lee Jones) with establishing whether Emperor Hirohito should face a war crimes trial. As a polished "who decided it", this is an intriguing entry point into a fascinating period of Japanese/American history.
Tommy Lee Jones
The investigation into Hirohito's war crimes complicity is a detective story worthy of Dashiell Hammett.
Secluded in his heavily guarded palace, the emperor is protected by the heavy cloak of Japanese reticence in deference to their "living God", with numerous governmental flunkies (including Prime Minister Tojo) refusing to incriminate the figurehead.
All this is set against the backdrop of a country bombed into the Stone Age, with a shattered populace teetering on the brink of desperate anarchy. An anarchy that will erupt if the emperor is hung as a war criminal, but Washington is crying out for a conviction to appease voters baying for blood.
This component parts are present and correct in Emperor, but director Peter Webber cannot capture the momentousness of the period, falling back on the "slot A into tab B" dramatics in Vera Blasi and David Klass' script.
Fox's General Fellers is charged with uncovering the truth about Hirohito's culpability and ticks all politically sensitive boxes. An expert in Japanese culture and psychology following a pre-war liaison with a Japanese love interest (Hatsune), for whom he searches in the post-war rubble, Fox's expository role is heavy on dialogue labouring points about Japan's warrior spirit, honour and rigid rules of conduct.
Golden-hued flashbacks to the lost love dissipate what little tension Webber can muster and there is little variation on the tight-lipped officials scenes that unfold one after the next until Fellers reaches someone willing to talk.
Tommy Lee Jones has more fun as the larger-than-life MacArthur, a man full of bravado and "American swagger" who shrewdly distances himself from the investigation lest it ruin his Presidential campaign hopes.
Tokyo's devastated landscape is effectively rendered and flashbacks to the militaristic government's response to Hirohito's decision to surrender suggest a far more interesting story waits to be told.
Undemanding, handsome and played with conviction, but sorely missing any sense of urgency.