World War II Marathon: Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)


The final film in the World War II Marathon, #50!

Screenplay By: Iris Yamashita
Directed By: Clint Eastwood

I have found that more often than not it is a sign that you are watching a great movie when the most ugly and disgusting of scenes can look beautiful and almost breathtaking. There are many such scenes in Letters From Iwo Jima, it is a testimony to the skills of director Clint Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern that there are such scenes. Eastwood’s direction combined with Stern’s images and color selection create beauty on the screen and it just so happens that the beautiful imagery is of disgusting and vile acts. There’s a feeling when watching Letters From Iwo Jima of being overcome by the immensity of it all. One can only look on in awe when Saigo is on a possible suicide mission to dump a shit bucket and stumbles onto the sight of the American armada. The beautiful imagery and daunting visuals like the armada outside the beach leave the viewer at a loss of breath over what they are witnessing.

Ken Watanabe has long been a favorite of movie goers, and thirty seconds after his entrance into Letters From Iwo Jima he has already reaffirmed why he is such a fan favorite. Watanabe imbues his Gen. Kuribayashi with a quiet reserve, a stately nature but more importantly an eye on the facts as opposed to history. From the onset Kuribayashi knows he has been sent to die, he knows all of his men will die, all he can hope to do is to last as long as possible. I was surprised to discover that Kazunari Ninomiya, Saigo, was a pop star and not an actual actor. Ninomiya is superb as the Japanese every-soldier, the opposite of the steely reserve all soldiers love to project. Saigo doesn’t want to die, but he knows just like all the other soldiers that he is trapped on Iwo Jima with no hope of ever leaving.

Letters From Iwo Jima is a very decided movie, and by that I mean it it a movie about the lack of hope. It has been decided from the moment that Letters From Iwo Jima flashes back to 1944 that all these Japanese soldiers will die, they have no reason to hope for anything but a quick death. In that way the island and not the Americans becomes the true enemy of the Japanese. Iwo Jima is an island of death, an island from which there is no escape.

Letters From Iwo Jima isn’t about the pointlessness of war, it’s about the pointlessness of the individual in war. The soldiers in Letters From Iwo Jima just happen to be fighting for the Japanese, they are not all that different from their American counterparts. In every way imaginable their participation in the war is pointless because a big part of living is integrating your individuality into your societal whole. Letters From Iwo Jima asks what the point is of sending boys and girls off to war when the individualism they fight for is stripped away until nothing is left but another nameless, faceless foot soldier.

Letters From Iwo Jima is a stirring and powerful film delivered by a director who has developed a reputation for great film making. I will not deny that Eastwood’s films aren’t for everyone and he does have his fair share of detractors. However, I am firmly in the pro-Eastwood camp, and when people ask me why all I need do is point to a movie like Letters From Iwo Jima. With this film you can see the great effect Eastwood’s minimalist direction can have, his ability to work with actors and his ability to adapt to different situations. I am not a fan of labeling films as masterpieces, but I will label a film as such from time to time. I have no qualms putting the masterpiece label on Letters From Iwo Jima, because it is that seminal of a work of art. How often will you find a World War II movie made by an American director, in Japanese, that treats the Japanese soldiers as the human beings that they are? The answer to that is simple, not very often. Just like it isn’t very often that a movie like Letters From Iwo Jima comes around.




7 responses to “World War II Marathon: Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

  1. You were obviously blown away by this film. I have it on DVD, but haven’t watched it since its release, so I won’t deny that some of the memories of the film are hazy. I remember liking a fair bit however, mostly for the visual qualities and the interesting idea of telling the story of Iwo Jimo from the Japanese perspective. Maybe I’ll do a review for my blog in a couple of weeks to refresh my memory.

  2. worldwar1letters

    Readers will also enjoy Soldier’s Mail: Letters Home from a New England Soldier 1916-1919 which features the writings of U.S. Sgt. Sam Avery during the American involvement in the Great War. A compelling eyewitness narrative from the hot sands along the Rio Grande to the cold mud along the Meuse.

  3. I’d like to respond to your conclusion that this film is about “individual in war,” at least as it applies to soliders other than Saigo. I think you are on to something, but are making a mistake to assume Saigo is representative of Japanese soldiers as a group.

    Saigo’s individualism does not embody the Japanese psyche at the time of WWII, it runs counter to it. American audiences can identify with Saigo because he is familiar. But it is innaccurate to say that the majority of Japanese soliders in the film (and certainly in the real-life WWII) were “not all that different from their American counterparts.” The Japanese soldier was known and feared because he valued his country and his honor enough to give his life far more willingly than his American counterpart. This is why there were very few incidents of Japanese soliders surrendering in any significant number (in contrast to American or German surrenders in Europe). The Battle of Iwa Jima demonstrated this mindset as the Japanese embarked to fight a suicidal battle of attrition.

    I don’t mean to suggest there weren’t Japansese soldiers like Saigo. But a soldier like Saigo stood apart from his fellow Japanese soldiers both in the movie and in the actual history. He certainly did not embody the persona of the Japansese soldier at that time.

    I think this film is superb precisely because it demonstrates this under-appreciated aspect of Japanese values in WWII. The American side of the WWII story is very well known and celebrated. The Japan that the world now knows is very different than the Japan that existed in WWII. Letters From Iwo Jima vivdly portrays a Japan that is truly a “foreign” country to most of us. Saigo is a character more like a modern-day Japanese man than one from the WWII-era. By seeing Iwo Jima through his eyes we can see what this conflict was all about and why these horrific battles were fought.

  4. Well, I never said that Saigo represented the Japanese soldiers as a group. I did, in fact, highlight how he was portrayed differently from most soldiers in war movies, but that was about the performance and not any statement on what Saigo represented.

    My point about the individual in war was that the Japanese were being asked to die for what had turned into a pointless cause. In this way they are no different than American, or other soldiers, at various points during WWII and throughout history. I didn’t mean individual as in a specific character, but rather the concept of individualism and how war removes that from the equation and ultimately begs the question of what purpose war serves?

    I will say though, that while most of what you wrote is spot on I think you are underestimating how many Japanese soldiers did think like Saigo. Years after the war there were scores of Japanese soldiers who came forward and claimed they thought along the lines of Saigo but went along with the actions of their government because the way they were supposed to act had been beaten into them in dogmatic fashion.

  5. Fair enough, though I think you are going further in your interpretation than the movie did. I thought Eastwood’s big achievement here was that he showed the conflict through a more “modern” type of Japanese character – that is, one who is more familiar to us than the stereotypical Japanese soldier of that era — but pretty much left it at that for us to ponder.

    I don’t doubt many Japanese soldiers were like Saigo, but it is a historical fact that many of them, and virtually all on Iwo Jima, still chose to die rather than give up. That sense of honor still managed to win out.

    Anyway, I have to be honest I enjoy your thoughts on the movie perhaps more than a straight up review. The only point I wanted to raise was that I don’t think the movie alone quite went the places you did as the viewer of it.

  6. Pingback: This Week In Cinema: March 04-10, 2012 | Bill's Movie Emporium

  7. Edgar – This film deeply resonated with me. The combination of the visuals and the direction are what most got to me I think. I’m pretty sure you would dig the film more on a rewatch.

    Letters – Thanks for the head’s up.

    Mike – There is a marriage between viewer and film, and that is where my interpretation came from. You may think that I went farther than the film but that is based on your interpretation. I feel my interpretation lines up with the film just fine, and that’s because it’s my interpretation of what I feel the film was saying.

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