“Letters from Iwo Jima”
2 hours, 21 minutes
Clint Eastwood’s Japanese perspective World War II movie, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” is fascinating, not simply for the story it tells, but for the fact it got made at all. In the process of preparing to adapt “Flags of our Fathers,” James Bradley’s stirring nonfiction account of the American soldiers who raised the flag on Iwo Jima and the iconic image that reignited the war effort, Eastwood became fascinated with the Japanese soldiers tasked to defend this remote outpost of their homeland. He decided to make a second film, focusing on the “enemy” perspective and, being that it’s Clint we’re talking about, Warner Brothers said, “Sure! Do whatever you want.” The result is what any good war movie strives to achieve, a beautiful and tragic portrait of mankind at his best and worst.
At the film’s opening, modern-day researchers unearth a cache of correspondence, never sent, buried in one of the caves on Mount Suribachi. These letters, and their associated flashbacks, punctuate the film, providing a revealing look at the men trapped on that island, waiting for an enemy they knew next to nothing about.
The story begins several months before the actual attack, with the arrival to the island of Japanese Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, played with grace and power by the inimitable Ken Watanabe, who finds preparations for its defense already in place. The tension starts early as the general, a replacement, takes issue with not only the strategy being implemented, but with some of the cruel treatment his officers visit upon the enlisted men.
Kuribayashi, unlike the majority of his men, does know something about the enemy, having spent time training in America in the 1930s. He also has greater understanding of the desperate situation he and his men are facing with a crumbling empire and a juggernaut of military might on the horizon. Against the advice of his officers, he abandons plans to fortify the beaches, and instead instructs a massive series of interconnecting caves to be constructed within the mountain, hoping the more defensible position will keep his men alive until reinforcements can arrive.
When the American fleet finally reaches the island, the onslaught is greater than anyone imagined, and the schisms among Kuribayashi’s officers comes to a head. Miscommunication and fear lead to mutinous acts that only serve to hasten the inevitable. Soon it becomes clear that no reinforcements are forthcoming, and the brave general, though still leading the charge, is forced to witness the decimation of not only his men, but of his beloved country, as well.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” is a beautiful and powerful movie. Like the best war movies, it gets to the heart of the real tragedy of war. It’s not about good guys and bad guys; cruel Americans and noble Japanese. It’s about the hubris of a few powerful people at the top and the horror that everyday soldiers, on both sides, are forced to endure and inflict because of it. Eastwood makes this point especially well by taking up the story of the Japanese soldiers, a group of people who had nearly always been portrayed as vicious animals in American cinema.
Despite the horrors of the Bataan Death March and the cruel surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, actions that can be blamed on policy makers or a small number of twisted individuals, Clint shows us a basic truth of war: the majority of the soldiers involved are young, everyday people who have no other motive than to defend their home and family.
One of the most fascinating things about the film is that, though it is technically an American movie, made by an American director and produced by American studios, it feels like a Japanese film. And not simply because of the subtitles, but in the storytelling style and in its sense of morality, as well.
It does, however, avoid some basic stereotypes. Clint’s portrayal of suicide is particularly revelatory. Typically, Japanese characters are shown as being willing to commit hari kari at the drop of a hat.
Ritual suicide is an ancient and revered part of that culture and cannot be dismissed because we don’t understand it. On the other hand, there is a deeply ingrained sense of self-preservation encoded into each of us, no matter what culture we come from.
Eastwood is able to combine these seemingly disparate ideas in the film, showing the folly and nobility inherent in such a tragic act; an act that, in the end, serves as a metaphor for the entire film.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” powerfully portrays the folly, nobility and ultimate tragedy of young men on the losing side of a war, an endeavor in which no one ever really wins. Grade: A.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” is rated R for gruesome war violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.
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