The atomic bombs have been dropped and left Japan in ruin, but as “The Emperor” opens there’s still the unanswered question of what to do with Emperor Hirohito, revered as a god by many Japanese.

It’s the single biggest issue confronting Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, and he designates Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) to determine in 10 days whether to prosecute the “Sacred Son of Heaven” as a war criminal – and risk a bloody uprising – or exonerate him.

It’s not the only thing preoccupying Fellers, however – so is the fate of Aya (Erika Hatsune), a Japanese exchange student whom he fell in love with years earlier but who may have perished from the Allied bombs that carpeted the island nation.

The World War II drama is directed by Peter Webber (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”), with the spit-shine uniforms, attention to Japanese protocol and beautiful cinematography helping push along a story that is rarely explored in film.

Jones, with his leathery appearance and gruff-mannered speech, makes for a convincing MacArthur, no more so than when his hands are also perched at his waist as he looks out from behind aviator glasses with a corn cob pipe in his mouth.

Jones, who was most recently nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor playing Thaddeus Stevens in “Lincoln,” plays himself so well it’s hard to know if he sleepwalks through his roles or works hard at it.

Unfortunately, it’s the square-jawed Fox, best known for the TV show “Lost,” and not Jones who gets the majority of screen time. His vanilla, one-dimensional acting doesn’t give the viewer much to work with. Fellers becomes most humanized in his flashbacks, when he recalls meeting and becoming involved with Aya, and in his pursuit of her.

Fellers’ preoccupation with Aya coexists with determining Hirohito’s involvement in the ordering of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and other wartime actions. His investigation leads him to often obtuse talks with politicians and officials once close to the emperor. There’s also the matter of whether he’s been set up by MacArthur to be the scapegoat if he determines – contrary to Washington – that Hirohito should be spared a trial.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Fellers – who in real life would later join the far-right John Birch Society – repeats a litany of war crimes conducted by Japanese soldiers to a former official, who in turn reminds the American of past war crimes committed by Western colonizers.

The film, and especially its conclusion, takes liberties – no surprise – in its Hollywoodized presentation. It’s a serviceable World War II film, even if it could have used more of Jones.


2 and 1/2 stars

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, Alex Cross, Eriko Hatsune, Toshiyuki Nishida.

Director: Peter Webber

Running time: 98 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for violence, brief strong language.

The Lowdown: Gen. Douglas MacArthur assumes control of Japan after Emperor Hirohito’s World War II surrender, and must determine his fate.