Examining the Other Side
Letters from Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood's companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, is a project I find both commendable and noble. After so many movies have been made about the American perspective on World War II, it's courageous of Eastwood to attempt to approach one of its most famous battles and look at it from the other side's point of view. The better part of this, though, is how he tackles the idea not with undue reverence or mere simplistic sympathy. The movie is a complex act of empathy, a sincere attempt to understand the human beings, flawed and all, behind the flag of Japan.
Letters is shot as if it were a Japanese production; gladly, it allows the actors to speak their own language while providing subtitles. It's a story of conflicting mentalities among the various officers and soldiers on the island of Iwo Jima, as they prepare for the American invasion. While many of the men there outwardly subscribe to Japan's ideas of military and national pride, we get to know at least a couple of them who dare to have different ideas. One is the new commander, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), whose approach to island defense is seen as radical by the more traditional officers there. The other is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), one of the infantry who hopes to return home one day despite knowing that conscription into the armed services practically equals a death sentence.
Eastwood, as is his trademark, is back to full myth- debunking mode, but in this case it's the Western myth about the source of Japanese strength. The Japanese presented themselves as a scary and unfamiliar foe with their infamous kamikaze tactics and willingness to self-sacrifice for the honor of their nation. But in the movie, Eastwood presents that idea as impractical as it sounds -- that the show of unity was mainly just that. Many of the soldiers here are coerced into following the Japanese military code. They don't value their own lives any less than any other soldier would, but shame is something the higher officers literally whip into their men.
The movie gains an even stronger sense of assurance from is its willingness to go further, even to criticize the Japanese military method as inefficient and inhumane. We are no doubt supposed to relate to General Kuribayashi, who insists that his commanders not commit hara-kiri (gruesomely with grenades) with their men when defeat is imminent. A living soldier, to him, is more valuable than one that dies for honor, but as the battle rages on, his commands are disobeyed and, as a result, their forces lose morale and become even more shorthanded. Whether or not this is strictly Western thinking applied to the imagined workings of a foreign force is debatable, but more importantly a point is being made here, and it's being made with a sense of conviction.
What drives that conviction is a concern for the humanity that must be repressed for any military force to gain effectiveness. If Letters from Iwo Jima suffers from anything, it may be from laying it on a bit thick at times when expressing its sentiments (a scene involving an American p.o.w. struck me as particularly obvious). But in the end it isn't just some sob story about how Americans should feel as sorry for the Japanese as they do for their own; it fully discloses that the Japanese were complicit in the brutality of their own operations, and that their own brand of military efficiency, though different and less familiar to Americans in operation, faced the same sources of inner conflicts.
Like Flags of Our Fathers, this film is an elegy to the soldiers who see battle and actually wage the war, always merely pawns of government machinations; the messages of both movies make it clear that war is a machine that turns everyone, ally and enemy alike, into cogs, and that no one should be surprised when those cogs resist. Letters from Iwo Jima gains its potency from not only daring to see a battle from the other side but also saying the Japanese military ran things no better than anyone else.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated “R” for graphic war violence.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.