US Release Date: 12-20-2006
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
- Ken Watanabe, as
- General Tadamichi Kuribayashi
- Kazunari Ninomiya, as
- Tsuyoshi Ihara, as
- Baron Nishi
- Ryo Kase, as
- Shido Nakamura, as
- Lieutenant Ito
- Hiroshi Watanabe, as
- Lieutenant Fujita
- Takumi Bando, as
- Captain Tanida
- Yuki Matsuzaki, as
- Mark Moses as
- American officer
Ken Watanabe in Letters from Iwo Jima.
After being disappointed with Flags of Ours of Fathers, I went into Letters from Iwo Jima with no expectations one way or the other. In fact, the only reason I saw it all was because it had been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, which I secretly felt it probably didn't deserve, but merely got nominated because it was directed by Oscar favorite Clint Eastwood. To my very great surprise and pleasure, I discovered that not only was this movie quite good, it was actually one of the best movies of 2006 and well worthy of its nomination.
In a nutshell this movie tells the story of the World War II battle for Iwo Jima, but from the Japanese side. While it is the companion piece to Flags of Ours Fathers, in that Flags sort of told the same story, but from the American side, they are two very different movies. Flags was really the story of how fighting that battle affected the men who fought it, rather than really centering on the battle itself. Letters on the other hand, since most of the men who fought it on this side never lived to deal with the consequences, is about the build up to and the battle itself.
The battle is shown from two points of view. Ken Watanabe plays General Kuribayashi, the newly installed commander of Iwo Jima. The movie opens with his arrival on the island as he takes charge to prepare for the expected American invasion. He is an honorable soldier who fully expects to give his life for his country. We learn in a few flashbacks that he spent a great deal of time in America before the war and is therefore thought to have knowledge of them and their tactics. Rather than being respected for this knowledge however, his more traditional subordinates deride him for it as making him weak.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the draftee foot soldier Saigo. A baker in civilian life with a wife and new born baby, he just wants the war to be over so that he can return to his world and family. There's been talk that Watanabe should have received an Oscar nomination, but I think the true loss is Kazunari Ninomiya, who plays Saigo. His performance is the heart and soul of this movie and it's a crime that he hasn't been so recognized this award season.
Although much of the movie's tension is created by the well directed battle scenes, the reason we care so much is that we care about the characters involved. Along with the two main characters, there are several supporting parts that are also developed. Through the use of flashbacks we learn about each of them. And to be clear, not all of them are likable. These aren't saints, but just men.
It was very strange at first to see a movie in which the Americans are the enemy. From this angle it puts the battle in a very different perspective. This was, in many ways, the Japanese version of the Alamo. A smaller force, cutoff from reinforcements and support, besieged by an enemy and trapped within a fortress (in this case the caves and tunnels that honeycombed the island). Unfortunately for the men on this island though, they gave their lives in vain. Their deaths only slowed the American invasion, they did nothing to stop it.
As strictly a fictional story, this movie is great. However, Clint has clearly made a decision to cast the Japanese in a good light and the Americans in a bad one. Naturally, the Japanese soldiers would see themselves as right and the Americans wrong, but this movie goes beyond that by showing a Japanese soldier caring for an American Prisoner, even going so far as to give him the last of their morphine, while an American soldier is shown killing two prisoners in cold blood. I can't wait to hear what Eric will have to say about this part of the movie.
I went into this movie thinking that it only got its Oscar nomination because it was directed by Clint. By the time I left it I was thinking that not only did it deserve its nomination, but that it also deserved to win.
Ken Watanabe in Letters from Iwo Jima.
From a historically factual perspective I do not know if either event actually occurred. Using a bit of logical reasoning, it makes no sense for the Japanese, who were in such dire straits, to give medical aid and valuable morphine to an enemy prisoner. The Americans who killed the two prisoners appear ruthless but it turned out to save their lives as they would have been attacked by a dozen Japanese soldiers who came across the deserters bodies soon after. As I think about it, I wonder if the killing of the two prisoners was described in a letter. If so then perhaps a Japanese officer simply told the other soldiers that they were killed by Americans as to discourage any other Japanese soldiers from surrendering.
No doubt their were some compassionate Japanese soldiers, but their reputation was anything but. The Japanese raped more woman and forced more into prostitution as "comfort women" than any country in recorded history. They were big on torture. One account I read, I wish I could remember the name of the book, was an admittance from a former Japanese officer who said that he came across a deserted village where a single woman was. She said everyone ran away because they were scared of the Japanese, but she was not. He then raped her, killed her and fed her flesh to his starving troops.
I liked Flags of Our Fathers, book and movie. I kept looking for connections between it and Letters from Iwo Jima. The flag raising, that was so significant in Flags, merely registers as the loss of a position to the Japanese. The one possible connection is that of the beating of a captured American GI early in the movie. In Flags, and in real life, a soldier nicknamed Iggy came up missing. His body was later found in a cave having been tortured to death. Letters never gives the soldier's name.
As Spielberg desperately tried to do, but failed, with Munich, Eastwood shows everyone the opposing side to a conflict without romanticizing it. These were just men with no lofty goals other than surviving a war that they personally never started. Spielberg wants you to see things his way in Munich. Eastwood leaves the events up to the audience to decipher.
Kazunari Ninomiya in Letters from Iwo Jima.
Scott, I don't think you can say Clint Eastwood made a conscious decision to cast the Japanese in a good light and the Americans in a bad one. On the contrary I think he did a brilliant job of being completely fair. Yes, one American soldier is shown killing two Japanese soldiers after they surrendered.
To me this was just his way of saying that corruption existed on both sides. There are plenty of Japanese soldiers shown that would have killed the wounded American soldier as well. Clint also doesn't shy away from depicting sadistic actions by Japanese officers towards their own men. For example there is the flashback scene involving a dog that is particularly cruel.
The wounded American is only shown mercy due to the intervention of the former Olympic horse riding medalist, Baron Nishi. Like General Kuribayashi, he spent time in America and mentions meeting Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at the 1932 Olympic games in Los Angeles.
Eastwood also includes a scene where a Japanese soldier says, “I thought all Americans were cowards. I was taught they were savages.” This soldier then goes on to say that hearing the words the American soldier's mother wrote to her son in a letter were exactly the same as what his own mother would say.
The point of this movie is to show that we have much more in common than the differences that separate us and that no country has a monopoly on moral superiority. Regardless of the type of government a country has there are both good and bad citizens living under it.
I do agree with Scott about the performance by Kazunari Ninomiya as Saigo, the baker turned reluctant soldier. He represents the everyman. He isn't fighting for glory or the expansion of the Japanese Empire. He was drafted against his wishes. We root for him to somehow survive against nearly insurmountable odds. In real life Ninomiya is a member of the Japanese pop boy-band Arashi, which makes his acting even more impressive. Can you imagine Justin Timberlake giving such a raw, heartfelt performance?
Clint Eastwood has made a moving and brutally honest portrait of war. It has now been more than 65 years since WWII ended but it remains the definitive armed conflict. It changed the world. History will be forever categorized as either before WWII or after WWII. Letters from Iwo Jima is a remarkable achievement that just might be Clint Eastwood's masterpiece.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (2006)