‘Emperor’: What did Hirohito know and when did he know it?

In “Emperor,” Tommy Lee Jones stars as General Douglas MacArthur in postwar Japan, deciding whether to recommend Hirohito be charged with war crimes.
In “Emperor,” Tommy Lee Jones stars as General Douglas MacArthur in postwar Japan, deciding whether to recommend Hirohito be charged with war crimes.

Some stories just seem made for the movies. The passage of the 13th Amendment, let’s say, or some nerdy people sitting around in Tehran listening to Led Zeppelin. All right, those may not be the best examples, but you know what I’m getting at. There are those stories that seem as ill-suited to the cinema as salami. A case in point would be the decision in the days following World War II whether or not to charge Emperor Hirohito of Japan with war crimes. It’s a rich and significant subject for scholars, but not exactly filmic.

Director Peter Webber (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”) and screenwriters David Klass and Vera Blasi think otherwise. “Emperor” is the result. General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) tasks a deputy, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), to gather evidence about Hirohito. He has just 10 days before MacArthur has to tell Washington what to do. Gulp.

If that weren’t enough, Fellers loves a Japanese woman (Eriko Hatsune) whom he hasn’t seen in five years. Has she survived the war? Does she still love him? Fellers is desperate to find her. He has the assistance of a somewhat beleaguered translator (Masayoshi Haneda) and multiple flashbacks.


There actually was a Bonner Fellers (with a name like that, there better be). His love life apparently was a lot less interesting than that of his movie counterpart. Fellers was also a lot flabbier than Fox, who has the pinched look of a triathlete who moonlights as a male model. Fox has a pinched voice, too, which makes the voice-overs he has to provide (this is the sort of movie that requires a lot of explaining) something of an ordeal. As during his “Lost” days, Fox carries the burden of a vexed nobility. There’s a wearying blankness to him. Close-ups of Fox in deep thought remind us that still waters may or may not run deep, but they definitely run the risk of evaporation.

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Toughest of all for Fox, he has to share the movie with Jones. Lordy, what a presence the man has. Why chew scenery when you can use it as a scratching post? Jones has reached the stage where he can’t be anything other than himself onscreen. That’s not a knock on his acting. As MacArthur, he has an actorly vigor and authority and expressivity — all that good stuff — that puts Fox to shame. The way Jones flexes a word like “aplomb” is a sound for sore ears.

But you never think it’s Douglas MacArthur you’re watching, even when Jones wears the aviator sunglasses and sticks a corncob pipe in his mouth. It doesn’t matter whom Jones plays — Thaddeus Stevens, Lady Bracknell, the Jolly Green Giant — he’s just going to seem like the increasingly monumental slab of Texas manhood that is Tommy Lee Jones. When MacArthur stands side by side with Hirohito (Takatarô Kataoka), it’s the ultimate in victor-vanquished encounters. That’s also true whenever Jones shares a scene with Fox.

Mark Feeney can be reached at