Maddy from Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Jay from Cinema Essentials are hosting The World War II Blogathon, and I am happy to participate (check out film reviews from Day 1 here). Some of the world’s best films were about the World War II and events related to it, including Schindler’s List (1993), Life is Beautiful (1997) and The Pianist (2002). This time, I am talking about Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language film Letters from Iwo Jima, a film which Eastwood produced after his patriotic Flags of Our Fathers (2006). Both of these films depict the Battle of Iwo Jima, in which the US army landed on the island of Iwo Jima and battled with the Japanese in 1945.
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Letters from Iwo Jima does not merely portray another battle in the World War II. When US army (navy and marine corps) landed on the island of Iwo Jima (an island of immense strategic importance) on 19 February 1945 (after air bombardment prior to that), they thought the battle would last five days, but it lasted for over a month. It has been called the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific, and the Japanese, under the command of fearless General Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe) demonstrated unexpected smartness (tunnels, strategy, etc.) and courage. All the odds were against the Japanese in this battle, but, looking at the fierceness of the battle, as well as the number of American casualties, one may even assume the opposite. Masterfully directed and brilliantly acted, Letters from Iwo Jima showcases compellingly the horrors of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, the desperate situation in which Japanese soldiers found themselves in, and the instances of both good and evil found on both sides of the battle. Also, coming from an American director in particular, Letters from Iwo Jima could also be said to be a very special film: a respectful one that honours another culture, tradition and point of view to the point of being completely “selfless” and “compassionate” in its purpose. In many ways, this is an anti-war film that underlines our common humanity no matter on which side of a war we find ourselves at any given time. We are all humans with an innate need for happiness, peace and understanding. Given the above, Letters from Iwo Jima is not merely a film that makes a powerful statement – the film is a powerful statement in itself.
Clint Eastwood is now known as a director that captures courage on screen like no other, filming stories that involve people who find themselves in extreme circumstances (Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)) or that strive for success against all the odds (Million Dollar Baby (2004)). Letters from Iwo Jima is no different in this respect, but it also has a more significant dimension to it – it is a historical film that shows the horrors of war. One of the most fascinating aspects of this film is that we see the Battle of Iwo Jima exclusively from the side and viewpoint of the Japanese. This is something we do not normally see in USA-produced films or even in joint productions. The film starts with the Japanese force’s realisation that they are in a very disadvantageous position regarding the coming American troops. They are based on Iwo Jima, an island which is between the home island of Japan and the coming American force. It is vital, therefore, that the Japanese do not surrender that island. However, the American force has both air and navy supremacy, and, given Japanese losses so far and the isolation of the island, the situation grows desperate on the island of Iwo Jima. When General General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives to the island to be in charge of the operation/defence, the Japanese soldiers realise that they must have all the courage and hope that a human is capable to have if they are to resist the attack and fight back.
We get to know about the situation of the Japanese on the island through the eyes of the recently-arrived-to-the-island General Kuribayashi, who was once close to an elite American circle. The General is in favour of the policy towards soldiers where high-ranking officials share the hardship of their subordinates, and he is also against rigid, harsh approaches towards soldiers. That causes some discontent (and slow-building dissent) among other high-ranking officials in the story. We also find out how young and poorly-trained some of the Japanese soldiers were, and how ill-suited some young men were to the waging of war. In some way, it could even be said that Eastwood and Yamashita (screenwriter) satirise the war effort because the organisation and collective spirit of the Japanese are slowly withering away, as hopelessness grows among the soldiers and contradictory orders leave some regiments in confusion. Picking on small things regarding the discipline of a solider means that broader, more important issues are left undecided.
As the island in the film slowly becomes a real death-trap, both true bravery and true cowardice emerge, and Eastwood captures powerfully the bombardments and the horror of dodging bullets, being as close to death as one can be, with the film having some very moving, inspirational moments. One point of the film is very clear: a war is never a one-sided affair. The audience cannot but be moved when the main character says these words: “if our children can live safely for one more day, it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island”. One of the other great things about the film is that it showcases human stories by digging into the Japanese soldiers’ states of mind, and we find out what kind of people they really were. Most of them are presented as decent people who have just recently led the most ordinary lives. For example, we focus on Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a soldier who was once a baker and who has a wife at home, waiting for their first child. These memory flashbacks play out in the background of the knowledge that there is a fierce fighting ahead and the increasing realisation that the Japanese soldiers have no chance whatsoever of making it alive from the island.
Letters from Iwo Jima does have some disturbing scenes since it also deals with the Japanese code of honour during the war (for example, the Japanese general position not to surrender whatever the circumstances) – Senjinkun military code, and, thus, the film also deals with suicide – honour, duty and the defence of one’s own people override the instinct of self-preservation. Clint Eastwood handles this topic equally well, and there are powerful scenes at the end of the film that lead to a satisfying conclusion.
Apart from winning an Academy Award for sound editing, and being nominated for three other Academy Awards (Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay), Letters from Iwo Jima also had an extraordinary success in Japan. The film may be too long, but it is also a great achievement in many respects. It is special in the fact that it is devoid of stereotypes, while it also emphasises the brutality of war and our common humanity. It even now echoes Renoir’s anti-war stance in La Grande Illusion (1937). The futility of wars is a topical issue even today, and, in this respect, Letters from Iwo Jima, being so inspirational and powerful in its message, will stand the test of time. 10/10