Hirohito sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne through the Japanese invasion of China, the attack on Pearl Harbor and all through World War II.
But at the end of the war, there were two emperors in Tokyo. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied powers in the Pacific, ruled Japan as a potentate, overseeing reforms that turned the country away from militarism and feudalism and setting the stage for Japan's ascent as an economic superpower.
"Emperor" is about both men, about MacArthur deciding whether to prosecute Hirohito as a warmonger and war criminal. Was the "God Emperor" merely a passive observer to his country's crimes against humanity? Or did he encourage it?
Tommy Lee Jones gives us a saltier version of the image-obsessed MacArthur, a cagey, guarded and cunning man who wanted to cover himself if he decided to absolve the emperor of blame, but brave enough to know that "a show of absolute fearlessness" is what will impress the armed millions of Japanese most.
With a tiny contingent of troops, he struts into Japan and watches lines of soldiers turn their backs on him as he passes.
"They avert their gaze from the emperor, too," his aide (Matthew Fox) explains.
"I know," MacArthur puffs.
That aide, Gen. Bonner Fellers, does the heavy lifting in this story and the movie. He has 10 days to investigate and decide Hirohito's fate. And as he is portrayed in the movie, Fellers is a man with a secret conflict of interest. The love of his life, whom he visited there before the war, was Japanese. Fellers puts his Japanese translator on the task of finding Aya (Eriko Hatsune, glimpsed in flashback) amid the ruins of a burned and starving Japan.
Then Fellers rounds up suspected war criminals before they can commit ritual suicide.
The script (by Vera Blasi and David Klass, based on a Shiro Okamoto book) plays up the culture clash, the bitter feelings of the ex-combatants and the uncertain times, with communism emerging as the Next Big Threat. But the film soft-pedals the real Fellers' politics to make way for a love story that may be fiction.
Jones is game for the larger-than-life MacArthur, but Fox comes up short as a lovelorn romantic lead. His soldiering is fine, but he never suggests a guy who carries a torch.
Director Peter Webber's team manages detailed depictions of the place and time that are spot-on.
The investigations and interrogations play well and do a fine job of explaining the stakes and the murky evidence.
But the love story turns it all into melodrama, robbing a forgotten piece of history of its potential to educate in addition to entertain.
• Rated: PG-13 for violent content, brief strong language and smoking (historical).
• Director: Peter Webber.
• Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, Eriko Hatsune
• Running time: 105 minutes.