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Title:Letters from Iwo Jima
Release Dates:2007
Running Time:142 Minutes
Formats: In Theaters
Starring:Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara
Directed By:Clint Eastwood
Produced By:Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Steven Spielberg
Written By:Iris Yamashita, Paul Haggis
Reviewed By:Burke G Sheppard

Most war movies are made from the viewpoint of the winners. Letters from Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, is about war seen from the losing side. This is Eastwood’s second movie about the battle for Iwo Jima, and it is considerably better than Flags of Our Fathers, which told the story of the men who raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi.

Letters from Iwo Jima begins in the present, with the discovery of a packet of letters in one of the many caves the Japanese tunneled out on Iwo while preparing for the American assault. The letters tell the story of the movie’s two main characters, a Japanese infantryman named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), and General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who led the hopeless defense of Iwo Jima.

This is tricky territory for a movie to navigate. For an audience to identify with characters making a last stand they need to sympathize with the characters, and usually this requires them to sympathize with the cause for which the characters fight. Eastwood sets out to humanize his characters, and to tell the story of the battle entirely from the Japanese point of view. This includes Japanese dialog with English subtitles. (English is spoken only briefly during the film, in two short scenes.) To a large extent, Eastwood succeeds in making his Japanese characters come alive. In this he is helped by good performances from his lead actors. Mr Ninomiya is likeable and convincing as Saigo, a baker reluctantly drafted in the army. Ken Watanabe, as General Kuribayashi, is magnetic.

Kuribayashi comes across as charismatic, fearless, and shrewd. Unlike most of the Japanese on the island, he has been to America and knows exactly what he is up against. Against the advice of his subordinates, he abandons the idea of fighting the Marines at the waters’s edge and puts his men to work burrowing out elaborate systems of caves deep in the island’s barren volcanic rock. He drinks Johnny Walker, carries a 1911 pistol (A souvenir of his time in America), and genuinely seems to care about his men. But though he has some admirable qualities, the audience is unable to sympathize with him. This isn’t due to any fault in Watanabe’s performance, which is among the years’s best, but due to the realism of Eastwood’s directing.

Although Eastwood tried to humanize the Japanese, he is extremely realistic in his depiction of the Imperial Japanese military and government. When Kuribayashi arrives on Iwo Jima, he learns from a subordinate that Tokyo has been hiding news of the Imperial navy’s calamitous defeat in the Marianas, even from its top commanders. Imperial headquarters is lying to everyone, including itself. He has to restrain a captain from sadistically beating his men for a trivial offense. He repeatedly encounters resistance bordering on insubordination from officers who want to fight the Americans on the beaches, which Kuribayashi knows is futile. During the battle, fanatical officers disobey his orders to withdraw to more defensible positions, instead ordering their men to commit suicide in place.

It is Eastwood’s accurate depiction of Imperial Japan, with all of its delusions, dishonesty, sadism, and death worship that keeps his main characters from ever being very sympathetic. Whatever redeeming qualities Kuribayashi and his men may have had, they had to be killed, period, end of story. Chilling scenes of Japanese soldiers blowing themselves up with grenades on the order of an officer, and a Japanese Lieutenant turning himself into a human bomb by tying land mines to himself will remind many viewers uncomfortably of the death cult of radical Islam that we are fighting today. There is a striking scene of a Japanese officer explaining to his men that the Americans are cowards, and showing them how to pick out the medic, because the Americans will lose many men to save him. One can easily imagine a briefing like that taking place in the Shah-i-Kott valley shortly before the 101st Airborne showed up. Despite its technical virtuosity, this film retains a vast emotional gulf between its characters and an American audience.

Letters from Iwo Jima lacks much of the visual grandeur that audiences may have come to expect from modern war movies. There are visually impressive scenes of air raids, bombardments, and a vast American naval armada, but much of the movie takes place underground. As the Americans close in the Japanese are reduced to a troglodytic existence, sheltering in their caves from a seemingly endless rain of high explosives. Eastwood probably did not intend the resemblance to al Qaeda fighters hunkering down in their caves in Afghanistan, but the comparison is inescapable. This simply adds to the feeling that Letters from Iwo Jima is a war movie at war with itself.

Eastwood again uses the sort of cinematography he used in Flags of Our Fathers, with washed out colors at times bordering on black and white. At times this effect has a kind of subtle beauty, but often it simply lends the movie an air of dreariness. Between the drab colors, the maudlin tone, and the somber piano music (Scored by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens), Letters from Iwo Jima can at times be hard to sit through.

Clint Eastwood set out to tell the story of the battle for Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view. In this, he has succeeded admirably, so much so that the movie may play a lot better in Japan than it does here. Eastwood never really succeeds in making the audience care about his Japanese characters, though he certainly tried. But this does not make the movie a failure. Perhaps what Eastwood has created, without meaning to, is a Rorschach test for whether or not the viewer believes there can ever be such a thing as a just war.


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