Letters From Iwo Jima
Director : Clint Eastwood
Screenplay : Iris Yamashita (story by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis; based on the book Picture Letters From Commander in Chief edited by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Ken Watanabe (General Tadamichi Kuribayashi), Kazunari Ninomiya (Saigo), Tsuyoshi Ihara (Baron Nishi), Ryo Kase (Shimizu), Shido Nakamura (Lieutenant Ito), Hiroshi Watanabe (Lieutenant Fujita), Takumi Bando (Captain Tanida), Yuki Matsuzaki (Nozaki), Takashi Yamaguchi (Kashiwara), Eijiro Ozaki (Lieutenant Okubo)
The second of Clint Eastwood's companion films about a crucial World War II battle for a tiny, strategically located island off the coast of Japan, Letters From Iwo Jima does everything right that Flags of Our Fathers did wrong. Whereas Flags felt fractured and divided in its focus, spreading itself too thin dramatically and narratively, Letters From Iwo Jima is tight and intense in its ground-level view of the Japanese soldier's futile experience holding off a vastly larger and more powerful U.S. force. Interestingly, the underlying themes are almost exactly the same, namely the conflict between individual morality and the necessity of a nation at war to construct a particular image for itself, but they come alive in Letters in a way that Flags couldn't muster.
Eastwood opens the film with solemn shots of Iwo Jima in the present, its blackish volcanic sand beaches looking virtually unchanged from sixty years earlier. The remnants of bombed out tanks and machine gun bunkers are scattered across the land--overgrown, but still visible, the reminders of the violence that scarred the island over the month-long battle. A group of researchers is excavating one of the many caves the Japanese soldiers used to hide in during the war, and they uncover a burlap bag of letters buried in the soil that tell the various stories of those who endured the war. These letters become the film's underlying voice, relating the soldiers' thoughts, fears, and hopes. This is hardly a new device in the war genre (one of the best documentaries about Vietnam, Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, was told entirely through actual soldiers' letters), yet it is done well enough to avoid feeling cliché.
The key to Letters From Iwo Jima is that it focuses on stories, reminding us that every soldier is an individual who experiences war differently. Yet, this does not come at the expense of thematic and narrative coherence. There is room for stories about rigid, honor-bound soldiers who would rather commit ritualistic suicide than die at the enemy's hands; stories about desperate young men who want above all else to survive; and stories about the conflict among commanding officers about how best to lead what is clearly a lost cause. Eastwood holds it all together with washed-out, nearly black-and-white photography that, in its own highly stylized way, emphasizes the reality of the here and now and ironically comments on the way military campaigns necessarily rely on black-and-white notions of good and evil, a division Eastwood is clearly intent on muddying.
The stories in Letters From Iwo Jima are clearly rooted in the Japanese point-of-view (it is amazing, in fact, to think that an American directed the film), yet anyone with a heart can identify with the characters and their predicaments. The film also emphasizes its underlying theme of connection across national lines, especially a scene in which a Japanese soldier confesses to having been programmed by military propaganda that Americans are brutal oppressors and a flashback sequence in which a Japanese officer dines with American officers before the war, both sharing their honor-bound duty to identify with their respective country's conscience.
There are numerous protagonists in the film, each of which represents a different side of the Japanese character. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) has recently been put in command of the soldiers on Iwo Jima, and it is his responsibility to defend the island against the encroaching U.S. forces, who want to secure the island for themselves and use it to launch a possible invasion of Japan. Kuribayashi is a man of great strength and conviction, but he is also a modernist who doesn't agree with the more stringent aspects of Japanese militarism. He encourages his soldiers to survive in defeat, rather than bow to death, which draws the ire of other officers who give conflicting orders.
The most memorable character, however, is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who still looks like a teenager. He has a practical sensibility, which is reflected when we first meet him digging a trench under the hot sun and bitterly complaining that the Americans can just have the island. Saigo often functions as an audience surrogate, as he bears witness to the film's most harrowing moments, whether it be the intensity of battle, or the vision of his fellow soldiers gutting themselves with grenades, or the conflicting nature of the enemy, reflected positively in a wounded American from Oklahoma who accepts kindness from a Japanese soldier and negatively in a pair of Americans who would rather gun down two Japanese prisoners in cold blood rather than guard them.
Like any good war film, Letters From Iwo Jima, shows us how war brings out both the best and worst in men. Except for a few flashback sequences, there are no scenes in Letters that don't take place on the island, which keeps us intently focused on the immediate, harrowing experience of war and its effects on human beings. The moment that was so central to Flags of Our Fathers, the iconic raising of a U.S. flag on Mount Saribuchi, is seen as a tiny speck in Letters From Iwo Jima, which in its own way is a better commentary on the constructed nature of war iconography and military honor than that entire film.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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