Published February 1, 2007
In the October 2006 film “Flags of Our Fathers,” director Clint Eastwood offered a look at how a group of Marines storming a desolate island in the South Pacific came to represent the American ideal of heroism during World War II. Eastwood now presents a companion piece to that film: “Letters from Iwo Jima,” released two months after the first film, depicts the story of the Japanese soldiers who defended the island. This film offers an unusual perspective by giving us a respectful and sympathetic look at the siege from the point of view of those who were, at the time, the enemies of the United States.
Shot back-to-back and almost completely in Japanese with subtitles, the two films offer a fascinating representation of the two groups of men who met in that battle. Although their concepts of war and patriotism may have been very different, Eastwood’s films show that the men fighting the battle shared many similarities.
The island of Iwo Jima was crucial to the battle in the Pacific—the Americans needed it to establish a staging area for communications and troops in preparation for an invasion of Japan, and the Japanese were desperate to stop them. By the time the battle for Iwo Jima took place in 1945, Japanese forces had been heavily decimated across the Pacific, and the heavily outnumbered Japanese troops had to hold the island as long as they could, with dwindling supplies and little chance of reinforcements. For the Japanese, the battle took on the sense of a suicide mission, and over 20,000 Japanese men died during the siege.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” portrays the tension that existed between the traditional Japanese ideal of patriotism and the individuality of the soldiers. Self-sacrifice, discipline, and honor are paramount to the Japanese soldier. Eastwood shows, however, how that standard could not always sublimate individual fears and longings. Soldiers are beaten for voicing doubts about the operation, officers are suspicious of and insubordinate to their commander, and, as the battle wears on, the question of whether it is easier to survive or perish is a crucial dilemma.
The story is framed by the discovery of a packet of letters buried on the island, some 60 years after the battle was fought. These letters offer background and help flesh out the personalities of the soldiers. Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita resist stereotypes in creating the characters, and the cast is uniformly excellent, each offering affecting performances of men living in a situation of incredible stress.
Saigo represents the common soldier. A baker by trade, he is conscripted and is forced to leave behind a young pregnant wife. Kazunari Ninomiya plays Saigo with a heartwarming charm. As the young soldier sees more and more atrocity, he loses his innocence, but never his humanity. His letters to his wife Hanako are very poignant, especially toward the end of the battle. He tells her that he does not believe she will ever receive them but that it comforts him to write.
This seems to hold true for Lieutenant General Kuribayashi as well. His drawings and letters remind him of happier times, especially the time he spent in the United States. Ken Watanabe plays Kuribayashi as a gentlemen, intelligent, slightly eccentric, and full of innovative ideas. He is unfailingly correct in his demeanor, even when faced with insubordination and insurmountable tasks. He accepts his situation with grace and seems to embody the spirit of sacrifice.
Other standouts include Ryo Kase as Shimizu, a young soldier sent to Iwo Jima as punishment for disobeying orders, and Tsuyoshi Ihara as the charismatic equestrian champion Baron Nishi, whose honor and loyalty are unparalleled.
While the story is fascinating, it can, at times, be very bleak. Unlike “Flags of Our Fathers,” which alternated battle scenes with scenes of the soldiers touring the United States, “Letters from Iwo Jima” takes place primarily on the island, with only a few short flashback scenes providing background. As the situation deteriorates, the film gets more and more intense, and the tension is unrelenting.
Even in the grimmest scenes, however, the cinematography is remarkable. Shot in flat grays and browns, the photography is amazingly delicate, even when depicting the most horrific details.
At one point in the action, a group of Japanese soldiers take an American prisoner. The group’s leader instructs the soldiers to treat the young man as they might wish to be treated. Despite their efforts, the American dies, and the Japanese discover a letter from his mother in his pocket. Nishi translates the mother’s words, including a touching instruction to “do what is right, because it is right.” This prompts many of the soldiers to understand that the men they are fighting are actually very similar to themselves. As Saigo says later, the American mother’s words were just like the instructions he had gotten from his own mother. One of the themes of these films is that the world would be a more humane place if more people had the ability to understand others as individuals as well as part of the collective, and if people had the courage to do what is right, just because it is right.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” gives a thought-provoking look at a story rarely seen. It completes the story of the battle and rounds out the story told in “Flags of Our Fathers.” Between the two films, director Eastwood demonstrates how an isolated, desolate scrap of land became amazingly important, not just to the thousands of individuals who fought and died there over a few weeks in 1945, but also to the identity of two nations.