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Letters From Iwo Jima Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

Image “Letters from Iwo Jima” is, in one regard, unusual: it’s an American film about a war in which the U.S. was involved, but told from the “enemy” point of view. This has been done occasionally in the past, as with the classic “All Quiet on the Western Front.” But this time, the movie is entirely in the language of the other side, in this case, Japanese. This is not unique—there have been American movies in Spanish, Yiddish, even the created language Esperanto—but this time, the film was made by a huge American studio, Warner Bros., and was directed by a prominent American actor/director, Clint Eastwood (who directed only).

He was directing “Flags of Our Fathers,” which deals in large part with the battle for the small but strategically important island of Iwo Jima from the American point of view. But as he was preparing it, he began to wonder about the other side. The island was Japanese, so that country’s soldiers were defending their home turf, and held out much longer than Allied planners were expecting. That film was made for Paramount, but he got financing for “Letters from Iwo Jima” from Warner Bros., and was backed by his co-producer Steven Spielberg.

Eastwood wanted the film to be as authentic as possible, so was determined to shoot it in Japanese. When he came across a slim book of letters written by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, in charge of the Japanese defense on Iwo Jima, he decided to tell the story partly from Kuribayashi’s point of view. Those letters were written some 15 years before the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima, but provided insight into Kuribayashi’s way of thinking. Eastwood turned to American-born Iris Yamashita to work out the story (with Paul Haggis, who also wrote “Flags of Our Fathers”), and to write the screenplay (in English). The story, of course, is basically simple: it’s how the Japanese bravely struggled to defend this little piece of their homeland, knowing without any question that they were doomed to defeat. There were only 216 Japanese survivors of the battle. The movie is honest enough to present several Japanese points of view—it includes hard-line, dedicated, almost fanatic “true believers” as well as young men who would rather be back home with their families.

The story also largely focuses on young Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who’s unhappy to be separated from his pregnant wife; his (fictional) letters tell the story from an ordinary soldier’s point of view. Initially, the troops are preparing to defend the island from the beach inward. But when Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives to take charge, he has radically different ideas. This puts him at odds with some of his officers and a few non-coms as well, especially when he has them abandon the beach defense and begin digging an elaborate series of tunnels. This, as it turns out, is indeed what kept Americans from winning Iwo Jima as quickly as they had expected.

There are flashbacks to Kuribayashi’s earlier years; he was a student at Harvard, and spent much time in the United States. He considered Americans his friends, and had a higher regard for their battle abilities than most Japanese did at the time. He quickly befriends officer Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who won an equestrian medal at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles; Nishi, too, is fond of Americans, but he is a Japanese military officer. Nishi is also an aristocrat, and has brought his favorite horse to Iwo Jima with him.

Shimizu (Ryo Kase) was a respected member of kampetai, an elite group within the Japanese army (akin to MPs); he doesn’t talk much to his fellow soldiers, who wonder why a spit-and-polish type has ended up in their grubby ranks, using tunnels for their defense. Flashbacks explain the troubling incident that led to Shimizu’s demotion.

Kuribayashi knows that there is no way the Japanese can win the battle of Iwo Jima, and no relief is coming—midstory, he learns of the crushing defeat at Midway, which essentially wiped out the Japanese navy. All he can ask his troops to do is to go down fighting, to take out ten Americans for each Japanese soldier who dies.

Eastwood’s movie is graceful and involving; there’s not a dull moment in its two and a half hour length. The first half or so is devoted to preparations for the American invasion; the second half is the battle and its aftermath as we see men we’ve come to care about cut down by fire from our own troops. There still are fanatics who believe wholly in dying for Japan; this leads to a deeply disturbing suicide sequence. The movie squeezes down, in a sense, from the broader canvas of the entire island to the tunnels, to a few men in the tunnels, finally to a very few dying back out in the open. The movie is framed by archaeological research on Iwo Jima—these scenes were actually shot on the island. A cache of letters is uncovered.

We certainly don’t want history to be altered, we don’t regret that the Japanese lost the war. But we can and do regret that these people are going to die, and that’s the real success of “Letters from Iwo Jima”—to make us realize that all too often, our enemies, like us, are at last just people. This movie is a good match with “Flags of Our Fathers;” that film had a broader reach—it was principally about the men in that famous flag-raising photograph—and this is more intimate, a smaller-scale story. But ultimately, both films are about the men who fought that terrible battle. (The flag-raising, so central to “Flags,” is glimpsed here as a few moving specks in the distance.)

Eastwood chose to desaturate the color—the movie is almost sepia-tone, with mostly only the reds of fire and blood burning through. Unexpectedly, this works very well in high-definition DVD, both visually and conceptually. Iwo Jima is an almost colorless volcanic island, composed mostly of black and gray solidified lava. (The original title for the film was “Red Sun, Black Sand.”) Draining the color emphasizes the desolation and the unworldliness of this fragment of an island. But it also lends the entire film an eerily beautiful almost silvery sheen, very handsome on the high-definition screen.

The primary featurette is “Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of ‘Letters from Iwo Jima,’” and it’s far more interesting than most making-of featurettes. This is partly because this American-movie-in-Japanese is such an unusual project for Eastwood, partly because he was so devoted to it. He explains why he ended up making two movies about the same crucial battle, and points out that the Japanese soldiers were told in no uncertain terms that they were going to die in the battle.

James Murakami moved up to production designer with this project, working with the great Henry Bumstead (on what proved to be Bumstead’s last movie); in the featurette, talks about the design of the film. Also heard from are costumer Deborah Hopper, writer Paul Haggis, producer Robert Lorenz, and the excellent cinematographer Tom Stern. But the most interesting comments are by Iris Yamashita, who wrote the screenplay.

“The Faces of Combat” is also more interesting than the standard DVD extra feature, because with the exception of Ken Watanabe, who’s been in several American movies (“Batman Forever,” “The Last Samurai,” where he received an Oscar nomination), the cast is unknown to Americans—and even to most Japanese. Yumi Takada, the Japanese casting associate, explains how she worked. Matt Huffman has an unusual story: his mother Phyllis worked for Eastwood in the casting department on 25 movies; when this one began production, she learned she was dying. She remained at home in New York and communicated with the production through her son.

Kazunari Ninomiya, Saigo, is a major singing star in Japan; it’s interesting to compare his guileless, youthful Saigo with his own very contemporary personality. We see him and others of the cast interviewed for the press conference in Tokyo, which itself is a separate feature on the disc. “Images from the Front lines” is a collection of striking still photographs from the set, some of which are quite different from the photography of the movie itself. There’s also a somewhat too-long featurette on the November 15, 2006, world premiere of the film in Tokyo.

The most interesting speaker in these various clips is Ken Watanabe, who here speaks only Japanese (he’s uncomfortable in English). He realizes that in Japan, the battle of Iwo Jima is rarely spoken of in history classes in Japanese schools. He realizes there is much of value to be gained by confronting this heroic but doomed effort—an effort that was misbegotten in the first place. Still, wrong or right, men on both sides died for their countries on that little island. He says, “we felt obliged to listen to the voices of the voiceless spirts.” “Letters from Iwo Jima” is an eloquent, moving testimony to those spirits.

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