Emperor (“My Thoughts On Movies Being ‘Based On A True Story'”)

22 Mar


Synopsis: “As the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, Gen. Fellers is tasked with deciding if Emperor Hirohito will be hanged as a war criminal. Influencing his ruling is his quest to find Aya, an exchange student he met years earlier in the U.S.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour, 38 minutes)

There is a certain phrase all of us have seen in countless previews, posters and taglines for movies: “Based on a true story”. How much impact do those words have on your desire to see it? Do they actually affect your final judgment of how the movie made you feel, and how much you enjoyed it?

I have asked the question to dozens of friends over the years, when I have my typical “what movies do you like?” conversation. (You think I don’t know what flicks each of my movie-buddies will be interested in before they are released to theaters? Trust me, I quickly figure it out!) About half of my friends have replied that they love watching this type of film. In fact I have come to realize that along with comedy, drama and horror, being “Based on a true story” has become its own genre as much as the others. I have then followed up the questioning with, “What if the movie was exactly the same, and the ONLY difference was that it was completely fictional?” The answer by those same people more often than not: “In that case it depends if the movie is actually good”. Wait a minute, so a movie based on a true story doesn’t have to be any good to be of interest? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy most movies – even many of the lousy ones – but I’m supposed to be the exception; I have a movie obsession after all! The rest of the movie-going world is supposed to have more discerning taste, but it appears that many fans of biopics and “true stories” simply want a good old-fashioned history lesson, whether it’s about getting six Americans out of Iran (Argo), the unlikely story of a Jamaican bobsled team (Cool Runnings), or  the American deliberation about whether to arrest Japanese Emperor Hirohito immediately after World War II (Emperor). 

If I had to admit where I fall in this debate, I’d say that I’m somewhere in the middle. If the historical topic simply isn’t of interest to me, then I will not be swayed in the slightest by the fact that it happens to be a true story. I will enjoy or be bored by the movie solely based on the quality or entertainment-value of the movie itself, no differently than if it was a work of fiction. An example of this would be Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, a true story about a golfer which doesn’t perk my historical interest, and the movie actually bored me when watching it. On the flip-side the film Miracle is about hockey, which interests me about as much as golf, but it is such an inspiring and exciting one that although it was wonderful knowing it was true, that is certainly not WHY I enjoyed it. At the same time, if I have a preexisting interest in the subject matter, then I will absolutely love the movie if it’s done well (i.e. Argo, Zero Dark Thirty), and I will cut it a lot more slack than I otherwise would if it is only mediocre, as with Emperor.

This is a subject I felt completely ignorant about when entering the movie: post-war Japan, and America’s role in deciding who was going to be charged with war crimes and who could be left in power. Japan had recently surrendered, and much of the USA was looking for “justice” from anyone responsible for the devastation wrought by the Japanese (in particular Pearl Harbor). As such, Matthew Fox’s character of General Fellers is tasked by Tommy Lee Jones’s General MacArthur to determine whether Japan’s highly revered Emperor Hirohito should be arrested and tried for war crimes. From the moment the movie began I was absolutely riveted because I felt completely clueless about this important part of our history, and everything else was seen through those biased eyes as a result. (I watched it with my friend Pamela, and it turned out she was on the exact same page about the movie, for entirely the same reason.)

I will therefore attempt to break down the technical merits or negatives of the movie, with as little bias as possible:

Acting – Tommy Lee Jones is always dependable, solid, and rarely out of his comfort zone as a serious, authority figure. He is just as good and unsurprising as ever as the iconic General MacArthur. Matthew Fox is certainly the focal point of the film, and does a solid, earnest, but somewhat safe and boring job investigating the potential crimes of the Emperor. I kept thinking about how much more dynamic Tom Cruise was in a similar role interviewing and investigating people in A Few Good Men. The most interesting roles of the movie come from some of the supporting Japanese characters who are being investigated. They are portrayed with a delicate balance of severe nobility, where you could sympathize with their inner sense of pride and honor that played such a huge part in their psyche during the war, but also doesn’t let them off the hook for their own brutal atrocities. Honestly the Japanese characters are probably portrayed with more depth and range than most of the one-dimensional Americans in the movie.

Romance – Lest I forget, the major subplot threading throughout the movie is Matthew Fox’s character searching for his long-lost Japanese love. This should have been the emotional core of the movie, but it is never developed well enough to make me care. Through a series of flashbacks that mostly made me wish I was watching Fox in Lost again, you see their characters meet-cute, and you kind of see them get together, but you never get that key scene where you feel WHY they love each other so much. That is simply the key to making the audience care about the characters, and it simply is missing from the movie. Thus the rest of the movie which hinges so much on this romance is simply not emotionally involving, and that’s a shame since it would have been so easy to add that one extra scene that could have connected them to the audience and avoided this emotional disconnect.

Direction – The director Peter Webber does not do anything particularly memorable here, but also does a competent job throughout the film. It felt like watching a really solid TV-movie about a fascinating subject. Peter Webber made two movies of note in the past: the very good little art-house film Girl With A Pearl Earring, and the disappointing but still interestingly made Hannibal Lecter prequel, Hannibal Rising. I feel like Webber went from having some sort of style and signature on his previous movies, to completely playing things safe with this one, which could have been made by anybody out of film school.

Story – This is what it all boils down to: the story was absolutely fascinating. I realized that the writing and the characters were often clichéd, and the romance didn’t reach me emotionally, but I just loved watching this under-reported (in movies at least) piece of history. I loved the detail put into the casting of each character and the intricacies of their clothing, something you can totally appreciate when the film ends and the real people are shown in photographs on the screen. It’s a history lesson I’m surprised I haven’t seen in movies until now, and it really poses quite the dilemma: On the one hand if the Emperor would be found liable for war crimes, much of the world would celebrate his demise much like they did with Saddam Hussein’s. On the other hand, if you took Japan which had surrendered and was being peacefully compliant, and arrested a man who they saw not only as a ruler but as somewhat godlike, then how much damage could that do to the fragile peace that had been achieved? And on top of that of course lies the question of what his actual guilt and culpability truly was during the war.

This brings me back full circle. I was absolutely fascinated, because it is a part of history that was of huge interest to me. I enjoyed watching it from the second I learned it was “Based on a true story”.

The movie was better than Clint Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers, an earnest but surprisingly boring true story of the American/Japanese conflict in WWII. The movie wasn’t nearly as great as Letters From Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood’s companion piece about the same conflict, but from the Japanese point-of-view. That was not only a fascinating look into the mindset of the Japanese, but it was done absolutely magnificently.

Quality Rating: B- (Competent film-making and acting plus a good story helped make up for its many ordinary flaws)

Boaz Rating: B+


2 Responses to “Emperor (“My Thoughts On Movies Being ‘Based On A True Story'”)”

  1. Shlomo Abraham March 25, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    I’m just commenting so you don’t feel lonely.


  2. boazconstrictor March 25, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Aww, I love Shlomo!
    I’m also curious where you stand on the question I pose here, does it add anything to you when it’s supposedly true, or is it irrelevant to Mister Shlomo?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: