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
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.