Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

13 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s very rare for an American-made war film to portray a battle from the failures’ perspective—it’s something else to practically make the US armed forces the “enemy,” from their point of view. But director Clint Eastwood has made something unique and special with “Letters from Iwo Jima,” the companion piece to his “Flags of Our Fathers.” That film showed the same battle from the Americans’ perspective, how iconic symbols can be formed, and asked the question of what it means to be a “hero.” “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the film that completes the portrayal of the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima. (Both films were released a few months apart in 2006.)

Ken Watanabe delivers a brilliant performance (one I think was overlooked by the Oscars) as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who arrives on Iwo Jima in late 1944, months before the big battle. Knowing the Americans will target the island, the Japanese set up surprise attacking maneuvers, diversion tactics, and dig tunnels in preparation. But Kuribayashi’s tactics are unusual to his fellow soldiers, beginning with taking artillery from the beaches to the higher ground, and so while some of his men see him as smart, others see him as weak.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Japanese end up losing the ultimate battle, and most of the platoon will be dead by the time the end credits roll. But it’s nice to see things most of us Americans already knew about seen from the other side, such as when the Japanese spot the raising of the flag on top of the mountain. It’s interesting to understand both mindsets of these opposing forces, which is probably the reason why Eastwood made both this film and “Flags of Our Fathers” back to back: to take notice of similarities as well as differences. What is surprising is how vulnerable the Japanese were, especially after seeing “Flags of Our Fathers” and assuming they were a faultless (faceless) force to be reckoned with. Here, we see the dangers they faced on that island, having to deal with sickness, shortage of food and water, loss of ammunition, no air cover, and no reinforcements when needed. They had much more to deal with than most people acknowledge. There are also some soldiers with mutiny on their minds, some with surrender on their minds, and some who claim that Kuribayashi isn’t on their level.

What’s also surprising is how they reacted to the inevitable. The main theme in the film seems to be “honor” and it’s precisely clear in each scene in which Kuribayashi’s orders to fall back are ignored and many soldiers force themselves and others to take such extreme alternatives to surrender, including suicide attacks and blowing themselves up with grenades. This is where audiences can ask themselves what honor really is, especially in the face of war. What is dying with honor and what is a wasteful charge?

Two characters in the film stick out and are helped with flashbacks to help build character. First is Kuribayashi, who has strong points even if some of his tactics do end up backfiring (you get the feeling that if he had more outside assistance, he would’ve had more advantage). And the other is Private First Class Saigo (Kazanari Ninomiya, very good here). He wakes up to everything surrounding him and starts to wonder why he’s even there. At one point, he considers surrendering; but his platoon, crossed with his own honor, won’t let him, seeing it as a crime to be what they label a “coward.” You see a lot of the action through his eyes—he’s just an ordinary young man who doesn’t know why these battles are even needed and just wants go home to be with his wife and daughter.

The look of the film is striking. Most of it is monochromatic with only instances of color in things such as explosions; you could almost see the movie as being in black-and-white. When the explosions do come, they look and feel all the more real and horrifying.

“Letters from Iwo Jima” is not propaganda, nor is it even pro-war. It’s not even that hard-hitting a war drama but rather a thoughtful representation of people who knew even before going to the island that their next stand could be their last. Instead, it’s a straightforward, powerful interpretation of an important part of history from a side we don’t often hear about, and it’s more pro-humanity. There are no forced debates about war; everything we need to know is shown to us effectively, and we see both sides of human nature layered within the film and its characters. The film also demonstrates Clint Eastwood’s continuing restrained maturity as a director; with this and “Flags of Our Fathers,” he clearly respects (or at least acknowledges) what went on in the heads of each soldier (particularly the “vulnerable” ones) on each side of the Battle of Iwo Jima. “Letters from Iwo Jima” is one of Eastwood’s best directorial efforts and it’s undoubtedly one of the most gripping, beautifully done war films I’ve ever seen.

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