Saving Private Saigo
Billing as “companion” to Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers unintentionally backhanded the director’s Letters from Iwo Jima to little brother status. And however user-friendly, subtitles from appropriate Japanese are not a draw for U.S. audiences.
But, from the other end of the gun barrel, this reverse take on the six-week hell in the Pacific emerges as the better of the two films. From the emotional and visual standpoint of backs-to-the-wall defenders of the last sacred-soil buffer of the homeland, the story seems broader in humanity and, unlike the several directions and locales of its brother, more thematically coherent and technically effective.
Co-producer here, Steven Spielberg changed the screen face of war with the landing sequences of Saving Private Ryan, which then turns conventional (and improbable, given flashback memories of events at which the private was not present). Both Eastwood movies are also shattering in the sights and sounds of combat, done in monotone olive drab sparked by bursts of red and yellow, as from an American flame thrower in the first, then as seen by imperial soldiers’ eyes on the receiving end of a bunker slit in the second. Much has been made of the violence in both; but what is war if not man at his most violent, and, in any case, the tandem is in the end centered on human behavior during such legalized carnage.
Iris Yamashita’s co-story and screenplay derive from Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, and LIJ is framed fore and aft by the 2005 digging up of letters to wives and sons buried rather than burned at the 1944 end by Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), himself author of more than a share of them. The film avoids easy excessive non-dramatic exposition through these letters home; read aloud, they dissolve into short visions of past lives in peacetime or earlier in the hostilities. Among bits that ring false, however, is the reading of one from the mother of a GI, praying for peace and moving the doomed defenders with its admonition to “always do what it right, because it is right.”
Not an anti-war tract or a glorification but, rather, a fair consideration of humanity that exists within the inhumanity of armed conflict, the film does not point fingers, and villainy or cruel expediency is nowhere dwelt on. There is balance even in the briefest of shots of American faces, as for a guard who shoots POWs there is the lieutenant (Jeremy Glazer) who kid-gloves the sorrow-maddened shovel-wielding Saigo.
An Ohmiya baker conscripted despite his and pregnant wife Hanako’s (Nae) protests, that foot soldier is the focus together with new commander General Tadamichi Kuribayshi (Ken Watanabe), although throughout the range of Japanese there are no evil guys, just those old-school types who favor tactics of the past and the sacrifice of lives over the dishonor of surrender.
Ozawa’s combined fleet destroyed and warplanes ordered back to Tokyo, the outmanned garrison is left on its own against the invaders, and Kuribayshi, who has lived in America, has troops pull back from beaches to dig eighteen miles of defensible tunnel fortifications in the volcanic rock. Criticized, opposed or sabotaged by old guard such as Major General Hayashi (Ken Kensei), Admiral Ohsugi (Nobumasi Sakagami), Colonel Adachi (Toshi Toda) and Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura), the ex-cavalryman commander finds loyalty in Lieutenants Fujita (Hiroshi Watanabe) and Okubo (Eijiro Ozaki) and a kindred soul in dashing Olympic equestrian champion Lieutenant Colonel Baron Taketchi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). Suspected soldier spy Shimizu (Ryo Kase), too, turns out to value animal life as well as human. Under suicidal conditions, others who fear death, or love life, more than “dishonor” emerge alongside those who would commit hari-kari.
Three times saved by the General, and then able to perform “one more favor” for that savior, common man Saigo is among those who, by pure chance, will live to raise their daughters and sons and to bear witness sixty years after the fact to the strengths and weaknesses of those who died and those who did not.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated “R” for graphic war violence.)