Thursday, January 25, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima / **** (R)

Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi: Ken Watanabe
Saigo: Kazunari Ninomiya
Baron Nishi: Tsuyoshi Ihara
Shimizu: Ryo Kase
Lieutenant Ito: Shido Nakamura

Warner Bros. and DreamWorks SKG present a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Iris Yamashita. Story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis. Inspired by the book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido. Running time: 141 min. Rated R (for graphic war violence).

There is a sense of despair right from the opening passages of “Letters from Iwo Jima” that usually is reserved for the later chapters of a war film. There is little sense that the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima ever had any chance of coming out with their lives; indeed, most did not. Some 22,000 Imperial Japanese soldiers dug into the very rock of that sulfurous mass of land to face a full U.S. Marine and Naval attack of more than 70,000 soldiers. The Japanese had no support from their Naval forces and very little in terms of armaments on the island. Perhaps the historians who balk at the accuracy of the Japanese chances of victory depicted here are more focused on the surprisingly good defense they put up than their actual odds of coming out on top.

“Letters from Iwo Jima” is director Clint Eastwood’s second film about the Battle of Iwo Jima to be released within the last three months. The first was an adaptation of “Flags of Our Fathers”, Navy medic John Bradley’s memoir of his experience during World War II as written by his grandson James Bradley.

“Letters”, meanwhile, was inspired by a picture book of Japanese Army artifacts uncovered by archeologists. Eastwood used the book as a reference tool for the “Flags” production. Most of the artifacts in the book were preserved at the time of the war by Iwo Jima’s Commander in Chief, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Eastwood was so moved by what he discovered in his research of the Japanese strategies utilized on Iwo Jima, he decided to tell the story of the Japanese soldiers in much the same way he presented the story of America’s Iwo Jima soldiers in “Flags”.

Both films focus their attention on the relationship between the nationalistic ideals of each country and the individual ideals of its soldiers. The films are companion pieces, but act as individual stories with very different perspectives and approaches, allowing them to be viewed as separate films. The primary difference between the films’ outlooks lies within the fact that the U.S. won the war and Japan lost.

“Letters” follows the stories of several different characters through the battle tunnels dug into the rock of Iwo Jima and through flashbacks inspired by letters written to loved ones that will most likely never even leave the island.

Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, “The Last Samurai”) is an Army replacement for Iwo’s original commanding officer. His other officers do not appreciate the way Kuribayashi questions the Imperial Command in their distribution of support and information. His unconventional approach to the coming invasion, most notably digging into the caverns in lieu of traditional beach trench defenses, allow many of his commanding officers to accuse him of being an American sympathizer. We learn he spent some time in America in his early career and understands that, despite the lack of long standing tradition, U.S. pride will not allow the Japanese sneak attack tactics to go unpunished.

Another lower ranking officer, Lieutenant Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara, “Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe”), is a former Olympian equestrian champion, who experienced world wide fame and befriended many Hollywood celebrities in his time in America. Nishi’s back story is the only one not told through letters he writes, but when he saves an injured American from the battlefield, it is a letter from that soldier’s mother read by Nishi to his own troops that expresses one of the clearest lessons of the film. After the letter is read, one Japanese soldier says it sounded just like his own mother’s words to him. The foot soldier is the same everywhere, operating under orders coming down from a line of command. A soldier fights because he feels he is on the “right” side and it is his duty. All a soldier wants in the end is to make it home alive.

That average soldier’s plight is told most directly through the story of Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya, “The Blue Light”), who was a simple baker before being drafted into the war, leaving behind a young wife and unborn child. Saigo’s struggle above all is for his own survival. The obstacles he faces are not just the American bullets, but the sword of unforgiving tradition stemming from his commanding officer’s pride. Assigned to the post of Mount Suribachi, which fell to the Americans in the first few days of the battle, Saigo endures one of the film’s most shocking scenes when the final surviving members of his post are commanded to commit suicide with their hand grenades.

Saigo escapes this death sentence with the help of Shimizu (Ryo Kase, “Strawberry Shortcakes”), whose own story shows the breadth of wastefulness in Imperial Japan’s nationalistic pride. Shimizu was a promising soldier with a position in the military police who was demoted after he refused the unnecessary command of an arrogant officer. Shimizu’s fate underlines the fact that there is good and bad no matter which side with which you align yourself.

As Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”) and screenwriters Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis (“Crash”) tell it, despite its strategic importance, Iwo Jima was a sacrificial lamb for Imperial Japan. The historians can fight about the truth of this depiction all they want, but Eastwood’s argument is that there must be a point at which being on the losing end of a conflict becomes an exercise in futility. By continuing to fight beyond that juncture, all issues of righteousness and nationalistic pride become moot and only self preservation and dignity remain. With “Flags of Our Fathers” he proves that just a spark of hope can make the difference in war. With “Letters from Iwo Jima” he asks if maybe enough is enough. This is a dilemma that haunts our own country today as it did Japan in 1945.

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