Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

This review of Letters from Iwo Jima is published at Christianity Today Movies.

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Am I digging my own grave?” young Saigo wonders as he helps his fellow Japanese soldiers shovel out bunkers in the dark sand beneath Mt. Surabachi. And because we know the outcome of the Battle of Iwo Jima, we can make an educated guess at the answer to his question.

In an unprecedented work of ambition and vision, Clint Eastwood has released two films in one year about that historic battle: Flags of Our Fathers, which illustrates the American experience of the conflict, and now Letters from Iwo Jima, which draws us into the experience of the outnumbered, ill-equipped Japanese defeated in that battle in 1945.

The two films, produced with lifelike intensity and meticulous attention to period detail, mirror each other with subtlety and cleverness.

Flags asks us to reconsider American notions of heroism. Letters asks us to assess the Japanese concept of dignity, even confronting us with the grisly reality of the soldiers’ suicide tactics, which they carry out in the name of “honor.” (Watch out — the combat scenes are extravagantly bloody.)

Flags shows us the incongruity between the images of glorious heroism delivered to the American public, and the nightmares of battlefield reality. Letters shows a similar disconnect, as Japanese soldiers collapse in hopelessness while inspirational radio broadcasts from the homeland convey confidence of victory.

Flags shows U.S. authorities “revising” stories from the front lines in order to inspire the American people. Letters portrays soldiers who write letters home, only to see censors clip out anything judged “unpatriotic.”

Both films show us soldiers who behave with dignity, and others who become barbaric on the battlefield.

But Letters from Iwo Jima is distinguished by something rarely seen in American war films. To craft a work of art that allows us to enter the minds of our enemies, recognize their humanity, and come to care for them—that is as noble a gesture as an artist can make. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus said. It’s much easier and more invigorating to think of the enemy as soulless devils; all the better for mowing them down with machine guns.

And at first glance Letters from Iwo Jima seems like an inspired endeavor to portray the enemy with compassion and dignity. That’s why film critics across the country are falling over themselves to heap superlatives on Eastwood’s efforts. For many years, American media helped establish lamentable Japanese stereotypes, so it’s about time an American director stepped in to consider the Japanese experience with some care.

Further to its credit, Letters from Iwo Jima illustrates — with drama, detail, strong performances, and technical mastery — the sufferings of the Japanese as they fought. It’s one thing to read about how they were outnumbered, plagued with dysentery, starving, crippled by communication breakdowns, and torn between divided superiors. It’s another thing to let Eastwood take us into that situation.

Aesthetically, Letters is one of the most impressive war films I’ve ever seen. Tom Stern casts the chaos in muted colors until it’s almost a black-and-white film, just as he did for Flags. This gives the film the look of archival footage, even as it enhances the chilly, forbidding character of the island. Against this backdrop, the Japanese flags stand out bold and red, and when the U.S. bombers make their first strike, almost an hour into the film, the explosions are jarringly colorful.

The film’s episodic structure follows the simple-but-effective pattern employed every week on TV’s Lost. We meet the characters in a crisis, and then we come to appreciate them by getting flashbacks to their past. Letters focuses on four central characters:

Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is the film’s childlike hero, a young baker forced to leave behind his cute young wife Hanako (Nae) and their unborn child. Easily frustrated with his superiors, and unprepared for the hell about to be unleashed, Saigo is almost impossible to dislike. And as we watch him forced to carry pots of his fellow soldiers’ waste out of their death-trap tunnels on Mt. Surabachi, well, we want this guy to catch a break.

Looming over Saigo like a legend, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Watanabe) is the film’s most impressive figure. He was, as the film portrays him, charming and dignified, respected by American officers, and known for sketching pictures of his experiences. (Those sketches are included in a book called Picture Letters From Commander in Chief, one of the film’s primary inspirations.) Sent to lead the Iwo Jima defense after another officer refused, Kuribayashi arrives and takes control, causing controversy among the men but winning our admiration with his compassion and his old-fashioned sensibilities. He’d rather walk than get in a car; he’d rather talk about horses than tanks. And we feel his pain as his nation abandons him to strategize with disobedient, disrespectful officers while Americans overwhelm the island.

His friend, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), also visited the U.S. for the 1932 Olympics, where he won a gold medal in an equestrian event. Nishi wins our sympathy through his love for horses and the mercy he gives to an American captive. In fact, Nishi is the one who makes the boldest statements in the film, striving to convince his fellow soldiers that the Americans are just like them. “Do what is right because it is right,” he tells them.

When a traumatized member of the Kempeitai military police, Shimizu (Ryo Kase), shows up, he raises the anxieties of his fellow soldiers who suspect he’s come to spy on them. But Eastwood’s inclusion of Shimizu as the representative of the Kempeitai is just one example of how his selections heavily influence us to view the Japanese as not merely human, but as equivalents to the Allied soldiers in almost every way. What begins as compassion becomes a distortion. Why is it that of the notoriously wicked Japanese military police, Eastwood chooses to focus on a character who can’t even follow orders to shoot an animal, much less harm a human being? Even more tellingly, this officer ends up falling into the hands of a barbaric American soldier. A little irony goes a long way, but this?

Yes, Eastwood and his screenwriters, Iris Yamashita and Crash-scribe Paul Haggis, have taken their compassion much too far. In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott writes, “It is hard to think of another war movie that has gone so deeply, so sensitively, into the mind-set of the opposing side.” To that I would add, it’s hard to think of a war film that works so hard to make us fall in love with the enemy, and to airbrush their portraits.

It’s one thing to learn to love your enemies. It’s another thing to view them through rose-colored glasses. We also need to honor the memory of those Allied forces who suffered from Japanese tactics and agendas, which are largely erased from this picture.

Yes, in almost any war you can find soldiers on both sides doing disgraceful things. (For example, it would be foolish for Americans to talk about the “war on terror” without mentioning Abu Ghraib.) And it is right for Eastwood to acknowledge this. But World War II was fought for compelling reasons, and its armies operated under different notions of duty and dignity. Eastwood has done nothing to prevent viewers from accepting these likeable, good-natured, conscientious characters as representative of the Japanese forces. It’s hard to imagine that men like these were guilty of so many war crimes against millions of POWs and civilians. (Look up “the Rape of Nanking,” or read about the Japanese treatment of POWs, for starters. You find a very different picture there.) The Japanese Imperialist forces were some of the most barbaric in recent history.

You might guess that Flags would be the film most likely to win acclaim at the upcoming Oscars.Letters, by comparison, is unconventional. It’s a foreign-language film, with only a few fleeting glimpses of American soldiers up close. Ken Watanabe, who made a strong impression in The Last Samurai, and threatened Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, is probably the only actor you’ll recognize. It’s about the losing side, not the victors. And there’s no love story to sweeten the descent of these Japanese soldiers on the island equivalent of The Titanic. Normally, a film so lacking in glamour and inspiration would be treated as an admirable novelty.

And yet, this is a Clint Eastwood film. Maintaining his reputation for profound, professional filmmaking, he’s crafted a heartbreaking lament for the countless lives that might have flourished if the war had been averted. And while his storytelling is workmanlike at best, Letters is a virtuosic display of technical excellence. Add to that the magnitude of this Herculean two-film feat, and the fact that Letters is an act of gratuitous compassion from a veteran of American war movies, and you’ve got to see the likelihood of Oscar glory.

If only these powerfully talented filmmakers had given us some context, some reminder as to why the war was fought. If only they had been truer in illustrating the distinctions between the armies — and nations — fighting it. They might not have been carried away from the facts and into wishful thinking.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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