#23 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
The second half of Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima epic, Letters from Iwo Jima is the first film in his career that I’m tempted to label as mawkish. I think it may be the music. Wonderfully acted with a much clearer narrative throughline than its predecessor, it’s the tale of men facing certain death. Never budging from its point of view of the Japanese during World War II, it’s an engrossing look at the other side of the war that seems to stack the deck in its own favor while going so whole hog in the direction of sympathy that it really does feel like it goes too far in that direction. Still, it’s good stuff.
General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) has been tasked by Tojo himself to lead the defense of the nearly barren little piece of sacred Japanese homeland, Iwo Jima island after the war has decidedly turned against Japan against America. He meets 20,000 men who are somewhere between directionless and leaderless under their current commanders who see only the textbook methods of shore defense as the valid strategies. However, with news of the Japanese navy’s defeat near Marianas, it’s becoming obvious that his objective is morphing from trying to defend the island of Iwo Jima to trying to last as long as possible against a far superior force that will have sea and air superiority over him. So, against the wishes of the head of the navy on the island, Admiral Ohsugi (Nobumasa Sakagami), he orders the digging of tunnels throughout the island.
The lower end of the army’s presence is mainly manifested by Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who watched the Kempeitai steal from the little shop he owned with his wife until they took his baking equipment and left him without any way to make a living. He was drafted shortly afterwards. He digs, gets ordered about, and beaten by his superior officers, and he most certainly never participated in anything like Nanking. In fact, there’s never any talk from anyone about any other army operation Japan participated in throughout the war, not even with the less than likeable characters like Captain Tanida (Takumi Bando). The fact that the film doesn’t even begin to approach discussion of any kind of Japanese war crimes (even an order about targeting medics just comes and goes) shows a certain reticence on the part of the writer (Iris Yamashita) to deal with the fullness of the Japanese experience in the war. By limiting the scope of the real narrative to people like Kuribayashi and Saigo (among a few similar others), it really stacks the deck in the favor of the Japanese in an effort to make them rather uniformly sympathetic. This, ironically, ends up limiting the film’s emotional impact to me. There’s more to this story, and I feel like I’m being misled.
Some of the other characters are the Olympic horseman Lieutenant Colonel Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and Private Shimizu (Ryo Kase). Nishi rides around on his horse until the first bombing run that kills his beast, and he’s largely out of place. He’s so flashy and charming while he forms a quick bond with Kuribayashi. Shimizu keeps to himself for months until her reveals that he was a Kemeitai for five days when he disobeyed orders and got demoted to the battalion on Iwo Jima. More really sympathetic characters to be had, really weighing the scales in the favor of the army that committed just so many war crimes. None of these characters are badly written. In fact, they are uniformly well written, so I don’t have any complaints about any of the characters individually. It’s just that there’s an implication that the movie seems to elide.
The Battle of Iwo Jima was the first battle of the war on the Japanese homeland, and so it raising a lot of feelings in the soldiers about defending their nation that battles at places like Attu or the Philippines wouldn’t. Their philosophical notion of their nation of Japan under Emperor Hirohito never comes into question, which wouldn’t be appropriate in general, so I wouldn’t expect someone like Kuribayashi to voice them. However, we have minor, fictional, low-level characters that could say something like, “This is the nation that ordered the terrible atrocities I saw in Manchuria and China that have scarred me, whose official offices robbed me of all of my belongings and forced me into war. Is this what I’m fighting for?” When Kuribayashi gives his big speech before his final nighttime charge about fighting for Japan, that could have been contrasted with a lowly soldier wondering why he was dying for a nation that had wronged him and so many other people, including American medics in that very battle. Ignoring the darker side of the Japanese involvement in the war simply feels like some kind of minor propaganda effort instead of real drama. The complexities of real life have been sanded away in favor of a simplified portrait of the war.
That all being said, I’m complaining about potential that I don’t think the film achieves. The more minor ambition that it does shoot for I think the film does achieve, though. It’s a sympathetic portrait of sympathetic men in a terrible, unwinnable situation. It’s also a portrait of that unwinnable situation, and that’s probably where the film is the most interesting. The steady degradation of the men, their psyches, and their conditions, to the points of suicide in defiance of Kuribayashi’s orders and in compliance with tradition. It’s a harrowing portrait of events as things just get worse with the inevitable becoming undeniable. There’s one particular event that I need to point out, though.
Things have gotten so bad that both Shimizu and Saigo decide to try and desert. Shimizu gets away and gets captured by Americans along with another Japanese soldier. Instead of trying to move the two prisoners around in the dark, one of the two Americans decides to shoot the two to the consternation of his comrade. Now, there’s an implication that the Japanese would probably kill the Americans if they were found out, but it’s thin. Had the movie spent more time with the Japanese as, at the least, soldiers in a time of war instead of gentle souls at the hands of a larger power then it would be easier to believe that the Americans would probably die the second they get found out. Instead, when the bodies of the two Japanese get discovered by a Japanese patrol, it’s all sad about the terrors of war, as though if they had come along with the Americans holding their fellow Japanese subjects there would have been a happy, Christmas between the trenches moment instead. Again, it’s the sort of thing that could have been capture with a more complex portrait of the Japanese army than the movie is interested in giving.
And yet, I still think the film is a minor success. Kuribayashi is a very nice character that seems to fit with the history, and Watanabe is a wonderfully gentle soul to bring the man to the screen. Ninomiya is a more innocent man as Saigo, and he carries his third or so of the film quite well. It’s a nicely performed film overall made all the more impressive considering that Eastwood probably had to deal through translators to most of his cast.
Now, this was originally conceived as the second half of one film with Flags of Our Fathers, and I wonder if the whole thing might have worked better as one whole instead of two separate wholes. It’s obvious at certain points (especially the beginning of the battle) where the two would marry very easily. However, considering the actions in the film, I think it’s easy to see how the single film would work. The early parts would be dominated by the Japanese side. The battle would be more evenly distributed, and the finale would be all about the Americans dealing with the aftermath. It would also be an evolving portrait of heroism with the early parts focusing on defense of the homeland combined with a more imperialistic need for loyalty to the point of suicide in the face of defeat that moves into another fake kind of patriotism to sell war bonds born of a minor act in the face of much greater dangers. That evolution is probably what would have driven the fuller, single film, and I think both might have lost an ineffable quality by the split. Both are good on their own (Flags is probably better since Letters seems so uneven handed when it comes to its subject), but I’d be really interested to see a cut of the two assembled together into one film.