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.