Letters from Iwo Jima
English Title: Letters from Iwo Jima
Country of Origin: USA
Studio: Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG, Malpaso Productions, Warner Bros, Paramount Pictures
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cinematographer: Tom Stern
Runtime: 135 minutes
Volume: American - Hollywood
In 1945 the Imperial Japanese Army prepares fortifications for the impending US assault on Iwo Jima. For Private Saigo and his fellow conscripts the task of digging trenches and tunnels is seemingly endless. It is close-run as to whether they will die from dysentery or the US bombardment. When General Kuribayashi takes command of the island’s defences, both supplies and morale are already running low. Many of the senior officers question Kuribayashi’s tactics, doubting his loyalty because of the time he served as a military attaché in North America. Yet Kuribayashi finds an ally in former Olympic show jumper Lieutenant Colonel Baron Nishi and together the two men fight to protect the island, while struggling to uphold their honourable principles. When the defences on Mount Suribachi crumble, the beset Saigo questions the worth of continuing to fight for what is clearly a lost cause. Led by Kuribayashi, and out of ammunition, the remaining Japanese forces regroup for one final desperate attack. Saigo is ordered to stay behind to destroy secret military documents and personal correspondence. Instead, he buries the letters and years later they are discovered by Japanese archaeologists. Finally, the soldiers’ personal stories will be heard.
Part of Clint Eastwood’s Pacific War diptych, Letters from Iwo Jima is best watched in conjunction with Flags of our Fathers (2006). Co-producer Robert Lorenz recounts that, while scouting the island, Eastwood was inspired to tell the story from the Japanese soldiers’ perspective. As with Flags, events are related through the eyes of a small group of men. Reflecting the lower budget, it is a more intimate film, creating a claustrophobic mood through the low-key lighting and oppressive locations. However, eschewing the complex fractured narrative of Flags, it principally concentrates on the battle, although the back-stories of the protagonists are revealed over the course of several flashbacks.
In common with Flags, the primary objective is to honour the memory of the soldiers. Actor Ken Watanabe states that the battle is ‘a piece of our history that we should never forget’. The film’s promotional materials suggest that World War ll is a topic largely avoided in Japan. As Eastwood acknowledges, it may appear odd that an American director would attempt to portray a Japanese viewpoint but, with memories still raw, perhaps an outsider was required to broach the subject.
At the Tokyo premiere Eastwood playfully referred to himself as a Japanese director, but he has demonstrated respect for the country’s culture. He sought guidance from the Japanese Iwo Jima Veterans Association and the script is based on Japanese source material, co-adapted by Iris Yamashita, a Nisei (second generation) Japanese-American. Elements of the characterization and visual style even recall the work of Akira Kurosawa, one of Eastwood’s early influences.
However, for an American director to take on a Japanese perspective remains problematic and potentially controversial. Letters has been criticized by members of the Association for the Advancement of Unbiased View of History for inaccuracies, including the use of westernized, gairaigo dialogue. With its depiction of kimono costumes and sliding shōji front doors during the flashbacks, the film has also been accused of Orientalism. However, this can be countered by the defence that Letters at least features Japanese actors speaking their native language and makes a direct attempt to elicit an empathetic response from audiences.
Nevertheless, Eastwood walks a fine line. On one hand his portrayal of the Japanese military has been criticized for being too deferential, focusing on US war atrocities. Yet others claim that Eastwood’s apparent sensitivity is superficial. The only sympathetic Japanese officers are revealed to have once lived in the United States, implying that their values have been tempered by their exposure to American culture. But such charges rather miss the point. Besides the fact that in reality Kuribayashi and Nishi did visit North America, the result of their experience is that they understand their enemies are ordinary men, missing their loved ones and wanting only to return home. The theme is emphasized after Nishi’s unit comforts a dying US Marine. Reading a letter from his mother, the assembled Japanese soldiers silently acknowledge that their opponent is not so different from themselves.
Although it would be easy to be cynical about this simple premise, it is commendable that a film from a major Hollywood studio and an ‘All-American’ movie icon strives to remind audiences that war is to be lamented and that the resulting loss of life is traumatic for both sides. It may not be an original or sophisticated message but Letters provides a sadly all-too-relevant reminder of the personal cost of war, suggesting that lessons have yet to be learned. As actor Tsuyoshi Ihara has observed, the film offers an opportunity to reflect upon ‘wars fought in the past as well as battles we’ll fight in the future’.
Author of this review: John Caro