Clint Eastwood is a remarkable filmmaker. The fact that he is 76 years old doesn’t stop him from making not one but two films back-to-back about the bloody Battle of Iwo Jima, an experience he must have known would take its toll. As Eastwood got increasingly fascinated with the history of the battle, he realized that there was no way one movie would be enough. He needed to make two, one that covered the American aspect of the battle, and one that covered the Japanese. Together, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima are pretty much the definitive documents of the battle.
The year is 1944. On the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, soldiers are preparing for the American invasion that seems inevitable. The island is pretty much hell on earth; not much grows on it and conditions are dire. But Iwo Jima is a crucial part of the Japanese defense of the mainland. When Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the man who will lead the forces on the island, arrives he finds the soldiers digging trenches on the beaches and realizes that that’s not going to do much good. Defense positions must be moved backwards in order to lure as many enemy soldiers as possible onto the beach; that way, the Japanese machine guns will be able to take out as many as possible of the Americans until those machine gun nests are inevitably destroyed by the next wave of American soldiers. Kuribayashi also orders his men to dig caves where they can hide and build headquarters. Some of his junior officers view their commander with suspicion, but the men respect him and are happy to see an officer who doesn’t believe in corporal punishment just for the fun of it. In the end it doesn’t really matter. The Imperial Navy General Staff are demanding Kuribayashi to defend the island down to the last man, but are unable to assist with the air and navy support required to succeed with the mission. Iwo Jima is destined to be taken by the Americans, but Kuribayashi and his men try their best. Unfortunately, ancient ideas of how battles should be fought with honor threaten to end the campaign sooner than Kuribayashi expects.
A forbidding place
This film is better than Flags of Our Fathers, because the filmmakers tell their story in a straightforward fashion, limiting the number of flashbacks, and refrain from jumping back and forth between several stories and times. There is no confusion. As a war movie, it’s also more exciting even though we know the outcome. Watanabe is memorable as the commander who used to live in California and who befriends another officer who’s seen the world, the genial baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who competed in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is another main character; once a baker, he was forced into the war and his quest to simply survive is engaging to follow. Some critics complained about the positive portrayal of many of the officers, but Eastwood doesn’t shy away from reality; there’s also a shocking sequence where a group of soldiers commit suicide by hand grenade as a result of the selfish action of one of the officers. The movie employs the same kind of bleached colors as in Flags of Our Fathers, making Iwo Jima look like a truly forbidding place.
Today, no one can go to Iwo Jima without special permission. It is still a place marked by that battle. The positive thing is that both the Japanese and the U.S. militaries are working together on the island as partners. Even something as atrocious as that battle can be put to rest.
Letters From Iwo Jima 2006-U.S. 141 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Robert Lorenz. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: Iris Yamashita. Novel: Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Tsuyoko Yoshido (“Picture Letters from Commander in Chief”). Cast: Ken Watanabe (Tadamichi Kuribayashi), Kazunari Ninomiya (Saigo), Tsuyoshi Ihara (Baron Nishi), Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe.
Oscar: Best Sound Editing. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film.
Last word: “I just didn’t look at any war movies. I didn’t go back and revisit all the ones I’d seen in life. And some of them I thought were quite good. I just saw documentaries. I went through a lot of documentaries on the South Pacific war, and then a lot of them on Iwo. There aren’t a lot of them, but there are some of them. There are a couple of them that are pretty good, considering that when you’re doing combat footage, you can only show the one side. You can’t go back and shoot a reverse of somebody. So, I saw some pretty good combat footage. Even a couple of shots were actually cameramen who perished in the battle. You could see that it was a big impact. I traveled to Iwo Jima twice. And I just got an image of it, and just did it that way.” (Eastwood, IndieLondon)