Letters From Iwo Jima

Movie Review: Letters From Iwo Jima

Letters From Iwo Jima

by Joe Sinclair, March 2007

Movie Review: Letters From Iwo Jima.

A Japanese officer orders his men to drag a wounded American soldier into their cave. He tells them to give the captive a shot of morphine. Then he rolls up his sleeves and announces that he will question the American "for information."

"Where are you from?" he asks in heavily accented English.

What follows is not an interrogation but a touchingly surreal moment of simple, humane conversation.

In Letters from Iwo Jima veteran director Clint Eastwood goes behind "enemy" lines to portray the inner lives of the Japanese soldiers. But while the film sets out to humanize the Japanese troops, Eastwood also explores the traditional values of loyalty, honor and sacrifice - all magnified in the field of war.

It is the second movie in the director's ambitious diptych about the island battle, which took place towards the end of the Second World War. In Flags of Our Fathers Eastwood took the American viewpoint, and the movie ranged from the battlefield to the political machinations on the home front. In Letters, the camera is firmly entrenched in the Japanese position as they attempt to defend their small scrap of barren land in the middle of the Pacific.

Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi arrives on Iwo Jima to take command of the beleaguered Japanese garrison. By Japanese standards he is an eccentric, setting off to explore the island on foot, a pen tucked behind his ear. He immediately orders the troops to stop digging trenches on the beach and to concentrate on digging the network of caves and tunnels which honeycomb the island. He is preparing for a prolongued defense.

His tactics are pragmatic, designed to prevent unnecessary loss of life. But the general's maverick thinking is seen as un-Japanese by his officers. For them there is more honor in a direct confrontation and a quick death. Like him, they realize that, with no air or naval support, their 20,000 under-fed and under-resourced troops cannot hold out against an onslaught of more than 100,000 Americans.

When the battle commences some of the men disobey the general's orders. They make "banzai charges," or suicide attacks, holding grenades as they run at the enemy to an explosive death. Others perform a kind of group seppuku or ritual suicide. In a scene sweating with fear and anticipation, a ring of soldiers take it in turn to each snap a grenade against their helmets and hold it to their chests. The crushing sense of group pressure is peculiarly Japanese.

Kuribayashi straddles the traditional and modern worlds. He is of samurai descent, but he has also visited America. He carries not just a samurai sword but also a pearl-handled 1911 Colt pistol. A flashback shows an American friend presenting him with the gun at a dinner party.

He tells his hosts that if the two countries ever come to war he will have to follow his convictions. His personal convictions, or the convictions of his country, he is asked. "Are they not the same?" he responds.

Ken Watanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha, Batman Begins, The Last Samurai) plays the general with a perfect mix of military authority, avuncular humanity, and increasing desperation. As the battle rages, he is shown isolated deep in the midst of his tunnels and caves.

His humanity saves the lives of some of his men. But his own sense of honor dictates that he will die. The samurai code, bushido, will not allow him to fall into enemy hands. And death will also attenuate the shame of an albeit inevitable failure.

But for many of the foot soldiers, patriotic and personal convictions do not fall so closely into line. Private Saigo, played surprisingly well by Kazunari Ninomiya (a member of the J-pop group Arashi) is a former baker and reluctant conscript. He has a wife and unseen child, and he would prefer to surrender than play the hero. Eastwood shows the nobility in his will to survive.

The film is framed by the present-day discovery of a sack of letters left behind in the caves - symbolising the unearthing of buried memories. It is shot in a near-monochrome, interlaced with various flashbacks and the reading of letters home to wives and children. These soften the film, meaning that in spite of the grenades, mines, and bombers screaming suddenly overhead, the movie is of the hard core war action genre.

This is a war film to be contemplated rather than watched for the thrills.

If anything, Eastwood and Japanese-American scriptwriter Iris Yamashita could possibly be accused of being a little too kind to their Japanese subjects. These were soldiers of the same army that was responsible for the Rape of Nanking in China, where a rampage of looting, rape and murder left tens of thousands of civilians dead and wounded.

There are moments of explicit brutality - on both sides - but Eastwood makes little attempt to examine the nature of that brutality. He focuses instead on honor, duty, bravery, and the similarity between the men on opposing sides. But there is a thin line between poignancy and sentimentality.

The Japanese officer and the wounded American continue their surreal conversation, while outside the cave their comrades are shooting each other down. He is Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), not only a lieutenant colonel in the Japanese Imperial Army, but also an equestrian show jumper and Olympic gold medalist at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

He tells the American, Sam, that he is friends with movie star couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. "No kidding," says the soldier.

After Sam's death the Baron finds a letter from his mother, which he unfolds. He reads it aloud and his soldiers gather around. The letter is like their letters. His mother is like their mothers.

Also by Joe Sinclair

Hitch-Hiking in Japan
Interview with a Kabuki Actor
Japan Travel Tips: Missing the last train in Tokyo
Hot Spring Bathing in Japan
Tokyo Story - Movie Review
Memoirs of a Geisha - Movie Review
Tony Takitani - Movie Review
Twilight Samurai - Movie Review
Fear And Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblements) - Movie Review
The Fog of War - Movie Review
Zatoichi - Movie Review
Interview with David Mitchell, author of "Cloud Atlas"

Books on Japan