September 25, 2013

Movie Review: Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

If our children can live safely for one more day it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island. - General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writers: Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido (book), Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis (story), Iris Yamashita (screenplay)

Producer: Paul Haggis, Clint Eastwood, Tim Moore, Robert Lorenz, Steven Spielberg

Studio: Paramount (US theatrical), Warner Bros. (all other US media)

Major Stars: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura

Letters From Iwo Jima is a remarkable film. The counterpart to Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, it shows us the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese. In doing so, it also shows us that the biggest difference in the soldiers who fight is the color of their uniform and not who they are or the color of their skin.

I think this is a very important movie in that respect. If you visit history sites or message boards, you will come across many people arguing that the Germans of WW2 shouldn't be universally vilified because many of the soldiers were just defending their home. But you will almost never see a similar argument made for the men of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). When, truth be told, the "defending their home" argument would apply more for the Japanese than the Germans, who almost universally (at the time) bought into Hitler's program. After all, Iwo Jima was considered part of the Japanese homeland by the Japanese people. The reasons for this dichotomy are rather self-apparent.

We see the saga of Iwo Jima through the eyes of Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya. He is a simple baker who was unwillingly drafted to fight in the IJA. All he wants to do is to make it home alive and see his wife and daughter. He doesn't want to be on Iwo, preparing for a battle he somehow knows is futile. How similar are these feelings to ones an American soldier would feel, far away from his family? That theme of commonality amongst all the soldiers is touched upon again and again by Eastwood.

The commanding officer of the Japanese forces was General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Ken Watanabe plays the role and he deserved another Oscar nod for it. Kuribayashi was a general who believed in defending his country. He also knew that it would be ultimately futile; he had visited the United States from 1928-30 as as military attache and saw first-hand the might of American industry. These two sides come across easily through the use of flashbacks and Watanabe's portrayal. Kuribayashi breaks time and time again with standard Army protocol. He doesn't want to throw away his soldier's lives on the beach. He refuses to let them engage in banzai charges because they are wasteful and useless. He wants his men to retreat to other locations rather than commit suicide (a gruesome example of this is portrayed in the film). And while all of this is sound military planning that will exact more casualties from the U.S. forces, Kuribayashi also does it because he doesn't want to simply waste their lives, even in a hopeless situation. He fights not to fulfill a warrior's code, but to keep the people of Japan safe for one more day, one more hour, from the American bombers that he knows will inevitably arrive.

The other intriguing character, both in the film and in real life, is Baron Nishi. Nishi was an Olympic gold medalist, winning the individual show-jumping event in Los Angeles in 1932. He moved amongst the social circles in the United States during that time. Played by Tsuyoshi Ihara in the film, we see him as someone who is willing to fight although it pains him to do so. More than anyone, including Kuribayashi, he understands that there is little that actually separates the common soldiers on either side of the war. The film does take a liberty in showing Kuribayashi and Nishi as friends; in reality they did not get along particularly well. And that may have led to a complaint from some reviewers that I will get to in a moment.

We are not spared the sight of true believers, however. There are many soldiers and officers that believe in suicide charges and killing oneself when all hope is lost. And the way they browbeat the conscripts into following them is heart-breaking. You try to understand why they did it, and can't. It was decades of relentless indoctrination, something we have no experience with.

The cinematography in Letters is wonderful. Tom Stern, who has worked with Eastwood almost non-stop since the early 80s and has been his cinematographer on every film since Blood Work in 2002, does a great job. Mount Suribachi looms over the black sand beach. The chaos of the pre-invasion bombing is on a par with anything else shot in recent memory. The actual invasion is massive in its scope, terrifying and awe-inspiring at the same time. The tunnels dug into the hills and mountains are claustrophobic and fear-inducing, because you never know what is around the corner. His choices with color in the film are interesting. A good portion of this film is shot in almost black-and-white. Every so often it springs into color. Other times it fades into almost a light sepia tone. Whatever the reasons, it works.

I also like that Eastwood shot the film in Japanese. It always irks me when foreign soldiers speak in English as the default language in a war film*. If you are going to make a film like this, don't take the easy way out. The use of Japanese just heightens the realism and allows more of the actors' emotions to come across.

Now to the aforementioned complaint. Some reviewers felt that it was a bias on the part of Eastwood to show that the two "good" Japanese were the two that had been to the United States (Kuribayashi and Nishi). That in doing so, their "goodness" was due to being somewhat Americanized. And that the others, who hadn't had the privilege of being exposed to American values, were benighted and evil as a result.

I can't agree with that angle. It's not out-of-bounds to show Kuribayashi and Nishi as conflicted. More than the other soldiers at Iwo Jima, they know that fighting America is a losing proposition. Kuribayashi wants to save his men as much as possible not because he was imbued with American values, but because he knows banzai charges are useless. Nishi knows the Americans better than anyone there and is personally conflicted, but that doesn't stop him from doing his duty and fighting.

But if anything, Saigo comes off best of all because he thinks the whole damn thing is stupid. And he's never been off the Japanese mainland until now. And it isn't like the Americans are pure and clean here. One of them kills two Japanese prisoners. But just as Kuribayashi and Nishi are balanced by some officers that embrace death as the ultimate achievement, so to the prisoner-killing GI is balanced by a lieutenant that spares a Japanese soldier's life when he doesn't have to.

And that is the point here. All these men fighting this horrible, brutal war, are, at their core, the same. They are good and bad. They miss their families. They want, more than anything else, to go home. The difference is that, for the Japanese, that isn't an option.

Letters from Iwo Jima is a well-made film period, and one of the best war films to ever grace the screen. It shows us a side of the war in the Pacific that we may not be familiar with and reminds us that, many times, we have more in common with our enemies than we may realize. On the current list I think Letters belongs in the same area with Downfall and Stalingrad. All three show us the war from the side of the enemy (if you don't live in Japan or Germany, of course). For me the question is whether Letters is better than Stalingrad. Which is, as all these reviews are, highly subjective. In the end, I think Letters is better by the thinnest of margins, in part due to the wonderful cinematography. But obviously, any film in this area is well-made and worth watching/owning.


* There are exceptions to this rule. Kingdom of Heaven comes to mind. Having everyone speak English for the most part in that film makes more sense than listening to a cacophony of Middle Ages tongues.


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