Tommy Lee Jones is MacArthur. Sorta. In the new movie Emperor from Peter Webber (Hannibal Rising, Girl With The Pearl Earring), Jones plays The Supreme Commander on a mission to save Emperor Hirohito from death and the world from the subsequent chaos that would occur should he be put on trial (much less found guilty and killed).

America wants the Emperor dead and Big Mac wants to be President, the chances of which are greatly diminished if the Emperor isn’t executed. So, he assigns Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox, “Lost”) to the task of collecting the evidence needed to indict or exonerate Hirohito. The White House has given them ten days, unfortunately, and naturally the upper levels of Japanese are either suicidal or otherwise non-communicative, to say nothing of having their own agendas.

This, it must be confessed, is a pretty damn worthy basis for a movie.

Questions of truth, justice and the American Way vs. the Japanese Way emerge, with heaping helpings of honor, pride, humility mixed in. Fellers wants to find the Emperor to be a mere figurehead, not responsible for the atrocities Japan committed or the attack on Pearl Harbor. But he has a hard time finding anything at all, and his conscience won’t allow him to just dummy something up.

Alongside this plot is Fellers’ search for a lost love, Aya (Eriko Hatsune, Apartment 1303, Norwegian Wood) which shows through flashbacks what is really a common strain throughout many reminiscences of WWII: a whole lot of Americans and a whole lot of Japanese among the educated classes really didn’t want to go to war.

Aya meets Fellers in college, and when she later vanishes back to Japan, he gets himself assigned to Japan and looks for her, only to find out she’s been forbidden to associate with whitey by her father. Her uncle, a general of some renown, is actually somewhat more open to Fellers, perhaps sensing a martial kinship.

A lot of this stuff isn’t made clear, like, what exactly transpired to get him back to Japan, or why the general might take a shine to him, and one suspects that we’re in highly speculative territory indeed.

But it all kind of works and Fox gives a compelling performance, as does Hatsune and Toshiyuki Nishida as Uncle General Kajima. Another great performance comes from Maseyoshi Haneda, who plays Takahashi, Fellers’ assistant and translator. More than anyone, he understands the importance of Fellers’ mission, and seems desperate to keep anyone from screwing it up (including Fellers).

Great score by Alex Heffes. A lot of the critical dramatic scenes involve things like filling out paperwork! writing reports! and making up your mind about something! where the music has to carry the drama! My reaction to this was interesting to compare to Lincoln: In that movie, I kept wondering why? The only upshot to Ninja Abe not getting the 13th Amendment passed right away was…that it would be passed slightly later.

It just didn’t sell it to me. This movie, on the other hand, did. MacArthur maybe even oversold it a bit, by suggesting that the entire country would riot were the Emperor put on trial—but then again, maybe not. It can’t be repeated often enough that the reason we nuked Japan is because they were prepared to strap bombs to their kids and send them rolling under invading tanks, kind of like Islamofascists now, except the kids would be more likely to do it willingly.

And the reason we nuked them twice is because it took two times to convince them.

But the movie itself barely touches that aspect, and doesn’t really sell it as such. So I thought maybe I was bringing my own knowledge of history to bear, until The Flower commented on how the Japanese were teaching their children to hate foreigners. This is a scene in the movie, and a persuasive one to her at least.

So, yeah, the movie makes it seem like a Really Big Deal while also expressing the idea that it’s important to be truthful and perhaps justice should trump pragmatic considerations no matter how dire.

I got a little teary when Mac met the Emperor, I confess.

So this only leaves us with the problem of Tommy Lee Jones as MacArthur. I like Mr. Jones, going all the way back to The Eyes of Laura Mars. (Remember that oldie? He was very nearly pretty in that, if you can imagine.) And not to damn with faint praise, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought he would be.

He got the mannerisms, the poses, the posture—but he still sounded like his ol’ Texan self and not really like an army brat born-and-bred to a Virgnian mother and a Massachussets father. His dialogue was also cruder than I think of MacArthur talking.

An iconic star like Jones is always going to have the problem of whether people will buy it if he radically changes his style, regardless of the context. (Kind of like Redford confusingly playing an American in Out Of Africa. Sure the entire movie ceases to make sense at that point but Redford with an accent? Impossible!) Gregory Peck already had a look and sound highly compatible with MacArthur so he didn’t have to change much.

Allowing that he could’ve played it more MacArthur-y, he strikes a good balance. He manages a great mixture of arrogance, empathy, intelligence, bluster and self-regard.

It’s getting iffy reviews. Critics seem to generally dislike it, while audiences generally seem to like it, with the former particularly reacting negatively to the romantic sub-plot. For me, I thought that sub-plot wasn’t about itself as much as it was a way to show the audience Japan from a Japanese viewpoint.

I wonder, at some level, if the movie doesn’t break a lot of narratives about evil America, and maybe that’s what’s really being reacted against. Americans and Japanese are shown as antagonists, rather than as oppressor and victim. I dunno, maybe.

I liked it a great deal. The Flower and The Boy also really liked it. The audience (packed house) also really seemed positive, from the rumblings in the lobby.

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