Letters from Iwo Jima
What a bold, ballsy stroke of genius Clint Eastwood had when he decided to make not one, but two films about the battle for Iwo Jima—one told from the familiar perspective of the American attackers and the other from the vantage point of the Japanese defending the island. Has such a thing ever before been attempted? It seems almost unimaginable that an American director would tackle such a subject. And yet here Letters from Iwo Jima stands, having gone where no other war film has ever gone: deeply, sensitively and fairly into the mind and actions of “the enemy.”
The companion piece to Eastwood’s earlier Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima is a profound meditation on the brutality, waste and human cost of war. And it is not only profound because it tells the story of a familiar battle from the perspective of the enemy, but because, rather than being a testament to the courage and ultimate victory of vastly outnumbered force, it is, from beginning to end, a chronicle of inevitable and crushing defeat.
Isolated on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, one of the last strongholds before the Japanese mainland, the Japanese army is without reinforcements, living in a network of burrowed caves, insufficiently armed, and suffering from thirst and dysentery. There is no illusion of victory here, only the stark reality of a doomed cause and a military ethos that demands death either at the enemy’s hand or one’s own.
Consisting of a force of only 20,000 men, the Japanese prepare for an American invasion of 100,000. In total, the battle would last over a month and although the Japanese inflicted heavy losses on “the Greatest Generation,” the 7,000 U.S. Marines killed at Iwo Jima pale in comparison to the measly 1,083 Japanese survivors.
The Japanese commander of Iwo Jima was Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi. His illustrated letters to his wife, recently unearthed in the caves, gave first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita the idea for the story that would eventually make its way to Eastwood. In the film, Kuribayashi is played by Ken Watanabe, best known in America for his roles in The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha. A dashing, sophisticated man, Kuribayashi is not a typical hard-as-nails general, nor does he fit the mold of traditional Japanese marshal politics. Educated in the West, Kuribayashi has a deep fondness for those he must fight, but an even deeper obligation to defend his homeland.
Kuribayashi is certain of only two things: Iwo Jima will fall to the Americans, and that he and his men will all perish. Determined to make the fall of Iwo Jima as costly as possible, Kuribayashi orders his troops to dig a honeycomb of tunnels into the volcanic earth. 18 miles of labyrinth and 5,000 caves are hollowed out in anticipation of the coming attack. Some of Kuribayashi’s fellow officers look upon his modern, tactical ideas with great suspicion though his troops love him for his great kindness toward them.
These men are made real to us by voice-overs, snatches we are allowed to overhear of letters they’ve written to loved ones back home who will never have the opportunity to read them. (When a Japanese soldier discovers a letter home from the body of a fallen Marine and reads it aloud for his comrades to hear, we realize just how alike both sides are). These characters are drawn with remarkable nuance and abiding tenderness. The emotional core of the movie lies with Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya, a pop singing star in Japan), as a young baker who only dreams of getting back to his wife and the baby he’s never seen. From an American point of view, it is impossible to demonize an ordinary man-child, pressed into service against his will, opposed to the battle and frightened of what he knows will come. He is a pawn, powerless to control any element of his own destiny. Eastwood’s humanity roars through the film in the silhouette of Saigo, be it as an innocent in battle or in flashbacks in which he hovers over his wife’s belly and whispers love to his unborn child inside.
Other significant characters include Shimizu (Ryo Kase), who once belonged to the military police, the dashing Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian in his former life, and Lt. Ito (Shido Nakamura), who wants nothing more than to slaughter the Americans.
The screenplay, written in English, was translated into Japanese when it was decided Letters would have an all-Japanese speaking cast. Yet another courageous choice on Eastwood’s part. By having the cast speak in their native tongue, there is a sense of realism unimaginable without it, as well as a distancing effect on the part of the audience. It is as if Eastwood intentionally wanted to begin with his protagonists as far away from empathy as possible, and then, throughout the film, bring them closer and closer until, at least emotionally, we could no longer tell the difference between the two armies. Letters is utterly and absolutely devoid of the patriotic bloodlust so common to American war films. It is not that we want the Japanese to win; it’s that we don’t want these men, whom we’ve come to know intimately, to die as we know they must.
Eastwood's direction is a thing of beauty, blending unblinking ferocity with fragile delicacy. Once the Allies hit the beach, Letters from Iwo Jima essentially becomes a black and white film. Bleached and desaturated of almost all its color, much of the monochromatic film’s only blush is the crimson gore of those gorged upon in the maw of war.
The disciplined Japanese hold their ground with an unearthly ferociousness, but slowly the Americans gain ground. This time, the faceless enemy that just keeps coming is the Americans. Conflicting commands cripple the Japanese communication lines, and in vain, Kuribayashi instructs his troops to fight till the last man. But as the Marines overwhelm the entrenched forces, many of the Japanese soldiers chose suicide to surrender, and in a particularly horrifying scene clutch live grenades to their chests. The giant anthill comes to resemble a mass tomb.
Letters from Iwo Jima is true to the established tenets of the war film even while radically subverting them. Though both Flags and Letters are able to stand on their own merits, each informs the other, and collectively plead against the gruesome futility of war. Though it is far too easy to assign the word “epic” to war films, Eastwood’s masterpiece is, if anything, an epic of intimacy and understatement. This is seen nowhere better than when Mt. Suribachi falls to the Americans and the U.S. Marines plant a flag atop its summit in what has become a defining image of World War II (and the nucleus to the first film). The camera refuses to leave the side of the Japanese. There is no musically charged scene of American heroism or well-earned bravado. We never actually see the flag go up. We only peer over Kuribayashi’s shoulder and see what he sees through his binoculars: a tiny speck fluttering in the distance, a symbol of the inevitable doom he and his incredibly brave men knew must come.