Letters From Iwo Jima
2006, R, 141 min. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Shido Nakamura, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Yuki Matsuzaki, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Bando.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 19, 2007
In his companion film to Flags of Our Fathers, which was released this fall, Eastwood again shows the process by which young soldiers become unwitting fodder for their country's war effort. The flawed Flags tells the story of the three American men who obeyed their superior officers and willingly accepted the guise of heroic mascots in a public relations blitz to raise support for the war on the home front. Letters From Iwo Jima instead looks at the story of the 36-day World War II battle for the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective. Yet, here again, we are confronted with images of military men who not only are expected to serve their emperor and suffer starvation, disease, and overwhelming odds in his name but also die by either their own hand or the enemy's rather than face the cultural ignominy of defeat. Of the two films, Letters From Iwo Jima is the more accomplished and more satisfyingly told one. Again, Eastwood uses the muted color palette employed in Flags, rendering the island's muck and caves in nearly black-and-white tones, brightened only by the flash of a gun muzzle or iconic flag. The script, whose Japanese dialogue is translated through subtitles, is by newcomer Iris Yamashita, with story input from one of Flags' screenwriters Paul Haggis and credit given to Tadamichi Kuribayashi's Picture Letters From Commander in Chief. Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) plays the enlightened Japanese general Kuribayashi, who revamps the Japanese strategy for the island's defense. In Flags we saw how the Americans were lured onto the beaches of Iwo Jima by the silence of the Japanese who were holed up in the island's mountain caves while holding their fire until the troops became sitting ducks. Letters takes us inside those caves, where the outnumbered Japanese soldiers – suffering from dysentery, hunger, and demoralization – still held onto their ideals of dying honorably for their country. There are but a handful of men we are shown who think through their objectives for themselves. One is Kuribayashi, an original military thinker who was clearly disappointed by his superiors' decision to doom his plan. The other strategic character is Saigo (Ninomiya), a conscripted soldier taken from the arms of his pregnant wife, who wants to survive in order to return home to the child he has yet to meet. The impulse to survive despite dishonor is shown to be unpatriotic to the Japanese warrior code, and it is this aspect of the film that most humanizes these soldiers. These are not the Japanese of American war movies, who are generally portrayed as barbaric others, nor are they exactly the harsh and inhumane fighters and captors that history has revealed them to be in places like Bataan, China, and the notorious POW camps. Eastwood's movie shows us at least a handful of warriors who resisted their orders to die in suicide missions, who wanted to return alive to their loved ones, and whose capacity to think for themselves put them at odds with their orders. The humanistic approach makes Eastwood's movie a war story for the ages.