Friday, May 24, 2013


(December 2006, U.S.)

With Memorial Day just around the corner, it seems only fitting that I discuss a war film. The fact that it's a World War II film makes it more personally satisfying, as I've always felt that the second World War has been best captured on film throughout the decades.

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is an American war film by Clint Eastwood spoken almost completely in Japanese released as a companion piece to Eastwood's FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (I film I was ultimately disappointed with) just a few months later. The film depicts the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers, whereas the previous film told of the same battle from the American perspective. Like many American war films you may have seen, character cliches become predictable. Soldiers are portrayed as sensitive, caring men with lives prior to the horrors of war. Unlike the American soldier we're likely used to seeing on screen, the Japanese soldier is portrayed as a man who is surely guaranteed (if not required) to die on the battlefield with honor. To do otherwise, even if it means continuously trying to fight on, is considered shameful and dishonorable. Even as the entire unit prepares the beaches by digging trenches, they know full well their efforts are useless and futile and that the island will fall into American hands. Even as this all takes place, newly-arrived General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe) takes command of the garrison and immediately begins an inspection of the island defenses. Like many military commanders of the big screen, he inspires many soldiers to greatness and pisses off just as many to insubordination. The one thing that is constantly agreed upon by almost all the men is that the Japanese soldier is meant to die. One soldier in particular, Private First Class Saigo (played by Kazunari Ninomiya) is determined to hold onto the hope of a life after war. Once he was just a simple baker with a loving wife and a baby on the way. By the time the battle of Iwo Jima is over, it appears that he is likely the only Japanese soldier to have survived. Will he return to civilian life with his family? Will he be ordered into battle again? We're left to only wonder and imagine.

Concentrating for a moment on the prospect of the Japanese soldier's destiny to die with honor, there's one particular sequence that's always stayed with me in which a group of soldiers are each ordered to commit suicide by exploding a grenade in front of them. Regardless of fear, all but two of them do it because it's understood that to refuse would be considered the coward's way out. As an American citizen who's been raised on his share of patriotic American war films in which the American soldier never gives and never surrenders, it's almost difficult to watch men of honor accept such a rather pathetic philisophical way of thinking. Perhaps it's just like that famous line uttered by George C. Scott in PATTON (1970) that went, "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." On the other hand, to experience an American war film from the perspective of the "enemy" is unique in itself because history has already taught us who wins and who looses. The American roots for the American, naturally. With LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, Eastwood attempts to inspire sympathy (or empathy) for the other side and try to understand it from their lives and their experiences. We know the Japanese are going to loose Iwo Jima, the American flag will be planted and that legendary photograph will go on to make world history. By the way, just in case you're one of the very few poeple in world who have never seen it, look at it and never forget it...

Unlike FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, this film was received well with both audiences and critics. Japanese critics, in particular, noted that Eastwood presents the character of General Kuribayashi as a caring commander of Japan's Iwo Jima garrison and of Japanese soldiers in general, in a sensitive and respectful way. The film is clearly distinguishable from previous Hollywood movies, which tend to inacurately portray Japanese characters with non-Japanese actors. Consequently, what tends to happen is that incorrect Japanese grammar and accents are conspicuous in those former films, jarring their realism for the Japanese audience overseas. However, most Japanese roles in this film are played by native Japanese actors. The film is clearly scripted with excellent research into Japanese society at that time, as opposed to sterotypical Hollywood images of previous efforts. As an alternate approach to the traditional American war film from a director who has always been hit or miss with me, it hits very well.

By the way, on a personal note, it was right around the end of the year 2006 that I finally decided I had to stop wasting time, money and brain cells on sequels, threequels, remakes and franchise films (like an alcoholic having their moment of clarity!). LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA was the first film I went to see in the theater in the hopes of devoting my movie time to more "artful" content. Not a bad way to start.

Favorite line or dialogue:

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi: "The United States is the LAST country in the world that Japan should fight."

Damn fucking right!

1 comment:

  1. I never did catch up with Flags of Our Fathers, it is on my to see list because it was made by Clint, but the reviews were not encouraging and it slipped by. This on the other hand I saw twice in theaters and I thought it worked really well. As a slice of the other side, it does allow us to see a different perspective, and it was much more Clint's qiet slow style that makes the movie work, along with Watanabe.