Years ago, I would visit my great-great uncle in Mississippi. He would share dozens of stories about his service as an infantryman in the Philippines during World War II. On one occasion, he went into the bedroom and came back with a box full of photos and war medals. But none of the contents belonged to him; they were the possessions of slain Japanese soldiers that he claimed as war prizes.
Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima does what few other American films have done by telling the story exclusively from the point of view of an old enemy, specifically the men my uncle fought over 60 years ago. It’s a companion piece to Eastwood’s excellent Flags of Our Fathers, which covered the 1945 fight for Iwo Jima from the American side. The battle may be the same, but the shift in both screenwriter and perspective makes for two entirely different, yet complementary, viewing experiences.
The narrative follows two protagonists, one real and one fictional, throughout the bloody battle for the small, strategically important piece of rock. The dignified General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) leads the Japanese defense of the island, a task with no chance for victory. The Imperial Navy has been all but destroyed, with supplies and reinforcements impossible once the Americans attack. Though defeat is certain, Kuribayashi dutifully sets to fortifying the island, digging an elaborate series of caves and tunnels designed to slay as many Americans as possible.
Amongst the soldiers defending the island is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker with a baby he has never seen back home and zero natural talent for combat. While Kuribayashi watches the battle develop through field glasses and reports, Sagio witnesses the terrifying ordeal from the front.
Despite the extraordinary amount of acclaim and awards heaped on Eastwood over the past few years, he is nowhere near a great director, but a skilled, utilitarian one. Consistently, his films are only as good as the material he works with, no better, no worse. The hype surrounding Letters from Iwo Jima reminds me of the fuss over Eastwood’s 2004 Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby, a solid film that received attention and awards severely disproportionate to what it actually deserved.
Letters From Iwo Jima tries very hard to be a relevant war film, with mixed results. The Japanese characters fall into several easy to identify archetypes; the dignified and pragmatic commanders, the dutiful but terrified soldiers, and the wild-eyed, fanatical officers. It’s not that these characters lack interesting features, but by the end of the first half-hour, we’re left with few surprises, even concerning their individual fates.
Particularly questionable is a scene where Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita suggest a degree of moral equivalency between the Japanese and the Americans. Students of World War II must take issue with this, as the Japanese of the time followed an honor code that forbade surrender yet allowed for actions such as raping Chinese women with bayonets. Make no mistake, they were oftentimes the Nazis' equal when it came to cruelty. It is unquestionable that war crimes occurred on the American side, just as they do in any army during virtually any war. But the comparison to the Japanese is irresponsible, utter nonsense.
While largely ineffective as an insightful look at human nature, the film has great merit as an historical piece. Despite an unnecessarily hazy chronology (the film makes events that took days or months appear to be much shorter), the look at the inner workings of this strange army is quite fascinating.
These men were the product of a culture that attached paramount importance not on life, but on death. In one indelible scene, an entire squad blows themselves to pieces with grenades rather than face defeat. It never seems to occur to most of them that it would be a greater service to their loved ones back home to go out fighting rather than committing suicide, while even mentioning surrender is an executable offense. At other points, junior officers brazenly disobey orders to retreat, launching futile attacks into overwhelming American fire because they don’t see their commanders as aggressive enough. Where the Americans in Flags of Our Fathers were devastated at every life lost, the Japanese in this film are literally ordered to embrace their bloody, vain ends, whether they like it or not.
It’s this aspect of the film that earns my slight recommendation. Flags of Our Fathers is the vastly superior piece both as entertainment and as an indictment of how war shreds entire generations to pieces, but Letters from Iwo Jima provides an effective counterpoint to it, the spirit of forced collectivism versus that of individualism. After all, those men in my uncle’s photos had stories, too, and they should be told by someone, however flawed they may be.