dir: Clint Eastwood
Eastwood capped off his epic filmmaking adventure about the Battle of Iwo Jima with this here sensitive, thoughtful engaging and sad portrayal of the battle from the Japanese side of things that managed to be everything Flags of Our Fathers wasn’t.
Letters from Iwo Jima follows a group of Japanese soldiers stationed on the pestilential island led by General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who know that their chance of winning is nil, and their only purpose is twofold: to delay the inevitable invasion of Japan by American forces, and to die honourably in battle (or die trying).
As such, considering the easy knowledge of the outcome, considering as well the fact that the earlier film focussed on the iconic shot of the flag raising by American forces, this isn’t a triumphant exercise in pro-war jingoism (then again, neither was Flags).
In contrast to another ‘war’ film I reviewed recently, being 300, which focussed on the exploits of some doomed but really hot guys in a battle they couldn’t win, Letters does not treat the battle like it’s a foundation myth of Japanese tenacity and martial prowess. It treats it, by looking at the experiences of some of the soldiers we spend time with, as a horrible time in a horrible conflict that ends in oblivion for most of the participants.
As well as with Kuribayashi, we spend some time getting to know some of the other guys, like the horse-mad Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who is a close friend of Kuribayashi’s, and the cowardly but genuine Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who seems to profoundly lack that kamikaze spirit we heard so much about. Saigo is a baker by trade, and never really puts himself in a situation where killing Americans is an option. All he wants is to get home to his lovely little wife Hanako, who he keeps writing letters to which are unlikely to ever get through.
Saigo is a humble, salt of the earth type, at the mercy not of the American forces, but of his own officers. We see him continuously with his life in danger, but in most cases it’s at the hands of overzealous Japanese who are either: trying to punish him for being unpatriotic in wishing a swift end to the war, trying to punish him for not committing suicide, trying to punish him for retreating, trying to punish him for looking goofy.
The men we spend time with are, we are to take it, both the exception to the fascistic Japanese madness that took over around that time, and just like the other guys as well. They have mothers and wives who worry about them and want them to come home, they fear the Americans as ravenous monsters hellbent on their destruction, though most of them know absolutely nothing about them, and they are more afraid of dishonour than they are of death. In most cases, Saigo clearly couldn’t care less, being a humble man.
As represented by Nishi and Kuribayashi, who have spent time outside of Japan and have fond memories of America, there is the notion that knowing something about the lives other people lead, about other cultures is a step towards the kind of mindless mania represented by many of the other officers and soldiers. To rape and brutalise other nations one has to see them as less than human to justify it to themselves and to each other. Once the veil comes off and the enemy is revealed to have the same kinds of hopes and dreams, and has the same kinds of banal but heartfelt letters sent to them by their mothers, they realise it’s not that simple.
Though it has flashbacks, the film moves in a more consistently linear fashion, which again differentiates it from Flags to its benefit. The film is book-ended with contemporary scenes of Japanese people excavating the island in search of pirate treasure or truffles or something. What they find is only revealed, and isn’t much of a surprise, at the end.
But mostly it follows the battle from the preparations on the beaches digging pointless trenches, to the creation of tunnels in Mount Suribachi to fight from its start to its bitter end. Since the film was shot concurrently with Flags, it uses much of the same footage and depictions of battle scenes as well. A lot of CGI goes into capturing the otherwordly horror that was that battle. Sure, the rest of World War II was a picnic, I know, but in the minds of many Americans and Japanese Iwo Jima was one of the defining battles of the Pacific theatre.
And the film does that distinction adequate justice. Shot in that distinctive way Eastwood likes to shoot his movies (which means lots and lots of scenes with people sitting around in the shadows talking), it looks a treat and matches the elegiac tone, coupled with the piano score by Eastwood’s son. All these elements mesh: the dramatic, the thematic, the look and the presentation into a coherent and affecting whole.
Strong scenes include Kuribayashi talking to some American military personnel and their wives before the war at a farewell dinner where he explains that his own convictions match his country’s convictions, which is a profound irony. Also, where Nishi asks a medic to help a wounded Marine to the horror of the other Japanese soldiers and what ensues; Saigo’s scenes with Shimizu (Ryo Kase), who he suspects of being a member of the dreaded Kempeitai, kind of like a Japanese Gestapo, and his revelation as to why he’s on the island.
A scene where a cave full of soldiers start killing themselves with grenades is very hard to watch but nonetheless confronting because it actually happened. As with a few other scenes, there are references back to moments that occurred in Flags, with an explanation or elaboration on what happened in those circumstances (like when they grab poor Izzy).
The Japanese mentality, which anyone who’s watched more than a few samurai flicks might have seen, as regards to death is every-present throughout the film. Seeing as WWII is seen as the last gasp of the samurai class / culture, it is appropriate that the ease with which Japanese kill themselves represents also how so many atrocities could be committed in the name of empire. I’m not saying that the soldiers here are samurai: I’m talking more about the honour-bound society which expected people who’d shamed themselves or shamed others to off themselves without a moment’s hesitation.
After all the Japanese flicks I’ve seen, were I to watch one where two people are walking down a street, and one accidentally bumps into the other, and then commits ritual suicide to apologise, I would not be surprised. It’s that deeply troubling ease with death, where people in an oppressive culture have had it inculcated into them from birth that death is preferable to dishonour or even embarrassment, that permeates this and every other Japanese story. It’s not really developed or elaborated upon, but it is present.
The film builds to its desperate and inevitable climax, and we wonder whether anything will be left to be salvaged, whether human or otherwise, when such events and courses of action have been set in motion. There are atrocities on both sides of the fence: the film does not portray the Japanese as angels, of that you can be sure, but it also does show a side of the Japanese in war you would not expect from an American director.
Eastwood gets great performances from everybody, which is weird since 99 per cent of the flick is in Japanese, and the film is every bit as good as Flags was disappointing, which is again weird. I don’t have any explanation for it. All I know is that it’s a pretty impressive film
8 times I, like Saigo in the middle of a heavy bombardment, have asked the heavens “why are you doing this to me?” out of 10
“If our children can live safely for one more day it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island.” – Letters from Iwo Jima.