War. It’s not an easy thing to solve, and thankfully there are many films that look at war in the same way Emperor does, discussing the deeper issues that sometimes surround victory and what we sometimes think is a clean win.
For the film, composer Alex Heffes has created a dramatic and contemplative score that interweaves a bold sense of emergency with a more subdued reflective quality. The film itself is set in Japan immediately following World War II, as General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) – now in charge of Japan – appoints Japanese culture expert Fellers (Matthew Fox) to help decide what should be done with Hirohito – the very Emperor of the title.
First and foremost, this is a fantastic score. What Heffes has done is contrast two very different moods of two very different world powers, and subtly combined them to comment on the complicated nature of war and the hangover that comes with it. The story of Emperor asks questions to which there are no easy answers, and Heffes’ music reflects this – what changes a country must face after defeat, and what challenges the occupying nation face in governing a foreign nation.
Heffes music for the Allied Powers is as you’d expect: elegant, reverential, and full of power. The main title uses a strong string melody to reflect the victorious American forces as they enter Japan, although there’s a tinge of sadness behind it, representing the fallen giant. It occasionally soars and is beautiful at times, but there is always a sense of regret behind it. The cues involving the investigation by the US have a more modern tone to them, some of them using electronics. There’s an increased sense of drama and urgency that helps propel the music, and adds a layer of tension.
In contrast, the Japanese textures and cues used have a bit more restraint. The lovely piece that seems to represent a previous relationship Fellers had in Japan – ‘Aya’s Theme’ – is a quite beautiful theme with a delicate melody that seems to indicate secrecy and vulnerability. It’s an emotional piece, played on piano and strings in different cues, and it powers the emotional core of the score. Heffes also uses traditional Japanese percussion to bring a sense of formality as well as the use of a solo Shakuhachi, which not only adds more Oriental flavour but works as an emotional instrument that conveys a sense of reflection.
The score ends with two pieces – a reprisal of the main title theme, in a much more introspective arrangement reflecting the deeper issues at play; and a wonderfully delicate piano solo of ‘Aya’s Theme.’ The pair provide emotional closure to what is an excellent score, and one that has certainly propelled me to look at Alex Heffes’ other work. One only wishes the film had a higher profile so the score would perhaps get the exposure it deserves.
EMPEROR is out now from Lakeshore Records
Words: Charlie Brigden