“Letters from Iwo Jima”, Clint Eastwood’s companion to “Flags of Our Fathers”, is destined to be a war classic. Mr. Eastwood directed and co-produced both films. “Flags” recounts the epic World War II Pacific battle from the perspective of American GIs. “Letters from Iwo Jima” tells the story through the eyes of Japanese soldiers. But “Letters from Iwo Jima” is much more than “Flags” from a different point of view.
According to Production Notes on the Warner Brothers website (http://iwojimathemovie.warnerbros.com), Mr. Eastwood’s inspiration for making “Letters” came from illustrated correspondence of Japanese commander Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi written to his family while he was in America as an envoy during the 1920s and ’30s.
Eastwood had to ask Tokyo’s Governor for permission to shoot on Iwo Jima. The island is considered part of Tokyo city, even though the two locations are 700 miles apart.
Viewers of “Flags” will remember the black-and-white sulfur shore of Iwo, which also appears in “Letters.” That’s where the similarities end.
“Flags” is mostly colorized, with sparse, colorless battle scenes appearing in flashbacks. “Letters”, however, depicts the war in present tense. “Letters” is shot mostly in black and white, with an occasional tint of green uniforms and a couple of colorized, peacetime flashbacks.
In order to tell a story well, characters must be developed. Such development requires that people depicted be humanized. Mr. Eastwood performs this task so well that, after a while, the viewer is barely aware of the English subtitles and all-Japanese cast. Horrific battle scenes are used effectively but sparingly.
Rated R for gory violence, the film is hard on optimistic American sensibilities. GIs going into battle know that they face death but usually have a fighting chance of staying alive. By contrast, Japanese soldiers are told that defending Iwo Jima is a mission from which they will not return. They are expected to commit suicide rather than surrender. Eastwood explores the reactions of a few of these men to their grim situation and the harsh ideology that exacerbates it.
The personalities are as varied as their ranks: the baby-faced Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a self-described “simple baker” who longs to meet his infant daughter; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a dashing lieutenant colonel who was an equestrian champion in the 1932 Olympics; Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a disgraced MP sent to Iwo as punishment for his refusal to shoot a noisy dog; and the brutal Lt. Ito (Shidou Nakamura), who lusts for suicidal glory.
Before the suicidal nature of Iwo’s defense is revealed, Nishi is foppish, sporting a scarf around his neck and doting on his Olympian racehorse. He probably would have been a playboy in peacetime. That image is shattered with the arrival of American bombers in a pre-invasion raid, during which a stunned Nishi weeps beside his dying and bloodied animal.
Saigo, in many ways, arouses the most sympathy. A reluctant draftee inept on the firing range, he is relegated to being a gopher, relaying messages through the caves. At one point, he volunteers to go to the surface to empty a pot full of boiling manure, nearly losing his life in a hail of U.S. gunfire. Although the scatalogical metaphor captures the state of American politics in 2007, it is even more apt in describing Iwo Jima in 1945.
Looming over but not dominating the cast is the larger-than-life figure of Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi, played by the accomplished Ken Wantanabe (“The Last Samurai”, “Batman Begins”). Kuribayashi, a new commander of Iwo Jima operations, arrives about half an hour into this 141-minute movie and immediately guts the strategy of fortifying the beaches, opting instead to build a network of 18-mile-long tunnels and caves. His highly unorthodox strategy is roundly criticized by his senior officers but proves devastating to the Americans.
The Marines expect to take Iwo in a few days, but the battle lasts well over a month. Nearly 100,000 U.S. soldiers are sent to Iwo Jima, and about 7,000 are killed. Over 20,000 Japanese defenders die; only about 1,000 of them survive.
Kuribayashi is a complex, tragic figure, similar in many ways to the characters Mr. Eastwood has played. Kuribayashhi is tall, fearless, laconic, sensitive, and humane. He saves Saigo from a brutal beating by Lt. Ito who overhears the baker griping. Late in the battle, Kuribayashi again saves Saigo, this time from execution by a superior when the private refuses to commit suicide. But unlike Mr. Eastwood’s intrepid cowboys and policemen who almost always win out, Kuribayachi knows that sooner or later, he will die.
It is ironic that Kuribayachi, who is fluent in English and a great admirer of America, is one of its most formidable foes. He carries a pearl-handled 1911 Colt 45 pistol in his rear holster, an item which was presented to him by an American naval officer at a dinner party held in his honor a dozen years earlier.
Although the film is black and white, the opposing sides are not. Eastwood shows Americans and Japanese engaging in both atrocious and merciful acts. Nishi orders his men to treat a wounded Marine. GIs shoot two Japanese soldiers who had surrendered.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, an inevitable clash of wills stemming from diametrically opposed ideologies. While Ito comes close to being a monster, most of the defenders depicted are very human. A scene that best sums up Mr. Eastwood’s sensibilities comes after the Marine treated by Nishi’s medic dies. Nishi verbally translates a letter the American had written to his mother. A moved and conflicted Japanese soldier opines that the American’s words could have been written by him to his own mother.
This film is an eye-opening tear-jerker that comes upon you in unseen and subtle ways. It should not be missed.