Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Shido Nakamura, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Yuki Matsuzaki, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Bando
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
I didn’t get a chance to see Clint Eastwood‘s companion piece to this movie, Flags of our Fathers, during its short theatrical run, so this review will be a rare thing: a judgement of the film on its own, rather than as a comparison, or a judgement of the undertaking as a whole.
Letters from Iwo Jima, adapted by Paul Haggis and translated by Iris Yamashita from the books Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (portrayed in the movie by Ken Watanabe) and Sadness in Dying Gracefully by Kumiko Kakehashi, tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers stationed there to defend the island from the American invasion. Eastwood attempts to humanise the other side of the battle, stripping away the stereotypes that have been used to demonise them throughout the history of American films, and revealing them to be soldiers with families and struggles, attempting to follow orders against impossible odds.
For this, the movie is to be admired. The audience manages to connect with some of the characters in the movie, be it the stoically honourable Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the dashing and gentle Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), the seemingly obedient, yet conflicted Shimizu (Ryo Kase), and most especially the simple and pragmatic Saigo (Japanese pop star Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker pressed into service who is less interested in the rituals of honour associated with war, and more interested in getting home to his wife (Nae Yuuki) and new baby.
Also to be admired is the technical mastery employed to capture the intense, close-quarters conditions faced by the Japanese at Iwo Jima, outnumbered with no support and few supplies, the Japanese dug out caves in the island to protect them from air attacks and draw the Americans into crossing fire. The result is a claustrophobic film, one that permeates the sense of hopelessness that confronted the Japanese, with its attendant conundrums for a culture where defeat and surrender is not an option. Eastwood puts us in the caves with the enemy, and manages to get us to almost cheer from them, if not for their success, then possibly for their survival. Cinematographer Tom Stern adds to the overall dank feeling of the film by washing out the colour in the movie, setting it in near black and white to transport the viewer back in time.
Overall, the movie is a success, a contemplative re-examination of history presenting a unique perspective in an artful way. The drama of the movie is enthralling, even when the majority of the action is in the waiting to die. However, it is not as great a film as I’d have hoped, nor as complete or fair a look as is necessary.
In attempting to break down a lot of the stereotypes that have surrounded the Japanese soldier of World War II, Eastwood and Haggis make the mistake of equivocation. While it may be true that the average Japanese soldier had similar hopes and dreams of his American equivalent, the Japanese army was not simply a group of soldiers honourably defending their homeland. They were the aggressors in the Pacific, employing brutal tactics in both war and in occupation. The film glosses over a couple of these tactics, be it targeting American medics in combat or boobytrapping dead bodies with mines, but saves it condemnations for the actions of a couple American soldiers. Worse than the implied equivocation is when the movie simply replaces old Japanese stereotypes with standard American soldier cliché, melodramatically using a fallen soldier’s letter from home to provide a moment of poignancy that felt forced and overly sentimental in what was usually an understated movie.
These flaws aren’t enough to wreck the movie, but they do keep what is a very solid war film from transcending the genre to become a truly great movie. Eastwood has proven himself a skilled technician, crafting a movie that ranks amongst the best in its genre, a meditative look at honour in the face of defeat (not unlike his earlier films, like Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby), and an impressive deconstruction of the previously dehumanised Other, one that just falls short of greatness.