movie film review | chris tookey

Letters from Iwo Jima

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  Letters from Iwo Jima Review
Tookey's Rating
5 /10
Average Rating
8.31 /10
Ken Watanabe , Kazunari Ninomiya, Shido Nakamura
Full Cast >

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Iris Yamashita , from a story by Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita

Released: 2006
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 141

Clint Eastwood’s long, monotonous, extremely repetitive companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers again shows the American capture of Iwo Jima in World War II, but from the Japanese point of view. It received almost unanimously ecstatic reviews in the States. But too many movies have won acclaim and Academy Awards for their fashionable intentions, rather than their cinematic achievement; and I fear this will prove to be the case here.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The most surprising defect of Letters is its lack of scale. You would never guess that the Japanese defenders built an elaborate network of 5,000 caves, tunnels and pillboxes, approximately 18 miles long, or that some of the manmade caverns could hold as many as 400 people. The film is seriously underpopulated. All we ever see are a few dozen Japanese hiding down holes or embarking on futile, doomed attacks.

Another fault is that Eastwood fails to create much sense of time or geography. There is no sense of the conflict lasting 36 days. All too often, the action shifts from one location to another, and we don’t know where we are. Maybe this is meant to replicate the fog of war, but it seriously limits our understanding of the Japanese defence.

Some of these limitations are the result of a fast shooting schedule and an inadequate budget. Despite having Eastwood as director and Steven Spielberg as producer, the film was shot in 32 days for $20 million, a paltry sum by Hollywood standards.

The main reason Letters was up for the Best Picture Oscar was its ideology, which is the opposite of gung-ho American jingoism. This is likely to make it extremely popular, as George Bush’s foreign policy unravels bloodily in Iraq.

It is also rare to see an American film that sympathises with those disrespecting the stars and stripes. It even tells the story in their language, with subtitles. Merely to attempt such a thing is, undeniably, brave.

The screenplay sees events from the point of view of two men. One is a less than brave baker, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who goes to war only because he has to, and writes longing letters to his young wife and the baby he has never seen. He’s a callow young man who can’t shoot straight and is alienated from a warrior culture that considers dying honourably worthier than survival. This makes him pretty much the mirror image of Jesse Bradford’s character in Flags of Our Fathers: a young man hailed as a war hero without so much as firing his weapon. But the cynical Japanese is far more sympathetic than the cocky Yank, from the moment Saigo gets into trouble for unpatriotic remarks while digging trenches in the sand (“Damn this island, the Americans can have it!”).

The other leading character has no counterpart in Flags, where the senior US officers were portrayed as men obsessed with selling the war to the American public and raising funds to continue the carnage. In Letters, that masterful actor Ken Watanabe (pictured, who comprehensively stole The Last Samurai from Tom Cruise) is dignified and authoritative as the real-life Japanese commander on the island, General Kuribayashi.

Despite being the man primarily responsible for the huge American body count, he comes across as a humanitarian towards his own men, and a shrewd tactician facing overwhelming odds. He had no sea or air support, and a fraction of the Americans’ manpower and ammunition. His masterstroke was to order the digging of tunnels, which prolonged the conflict as guerilla warfare and killed 6,000 American servicemen - not to mention 21,000 of his own men.

Kuribayashi is portrayed, without a trace of irony, as an officer and a gentleman. He considers the Americans natural allies and is obviously a perfect family man. He even writes apologizing to his wife for not having finished the kitchen floor before setting out for war. He is so courageous and compassionate that he, more than any American, emerges as the strongest and most attractive character in either movie. He engages much more empathy as the victim of Japan’s uncompromising militarism than anyone his soldiers happened to slaughter.

This kind of moral revisionism will have its attractions in an era of American self-doubt. But Eastwood and his screenwriter Iris Yamashita pussyfoot around the behaviour of Kuribayashi’s troops. As William Manchester’s memoir Goodbye, Darkness and Chester Hearn’s book Sorties into Hell both reveal, the defenders serving under this supposedly heroic leader committed many terrible atrocities, including eating American captives alive at night for hours on end, so that US Marines could hear their screams of agony. There were many acts of Japanese torture, including the sodomizing and beheading of prisoners. In Eastwood’s movie, however, the Japanese behave impeccably. The only soldiers guilty of atrocities are Americans.

Eastwood just as blatantly avoids mentioning why the Japanese were at war in the first place. He portrays them ultra-sympathetically, as fiercely loyal to their Emperor and their homeland. There is no hint that Japan was a defiantly racist, aggressively nationalistic society keen to establish a "Pan Asian" empire. The savagery of Japanese soldiers is no western invention. Around 300,000 civilian inhabitants, including women and children, were murdered in the taking of Nanking. A scorched earth strategy was used by Japanese forces in China in 1942-45, and was responsible for the deaths of 2.7 million Chinese civilians. The extreme cruelty of the Japanese in prison camps, which included the vivisection of human beings, is well documented.

I know that to acknowledge these facts might diminish Eastwood’s case, which is that the Japanese were innocent victims of a thing called “war”, but without some recognition of these factors, his account is light years away from honest.

Well intentioned though it is, Letters is likely to have a completely different impact from the one intended by Eastwood. Like The Last Samurai, it takes a deliberately rosy and unrealistic view of Japanese history and culture. As a result, it is certain to reinforce the current rise of chauvinist nationalism in Japan.

Potentially dangerous though that is, the impact on the west may be even more damaging. Letters From Iwo Jima reflects the current, flaccid wisdom in Hollywood, which is that we are all brothers under the skin. Truth doesn’t exist – it’s all just spin – and we should try to be multicultural and pretend, even though we secretly know it to be untrue, that every nation and culture is equally civilised.

The current consensus – and you’ll almost certainly hear this from some idiot at the Academy Awards – is that we should by now have outgrown the old-fashioned idea of challenging anyone, whether they be Japanese Imperialists, African Presidential madmen, or Muslim Jihadists. We should be trying to understand them and accept our differences.

At this rate, a movie celebrating the “courage” of the 9/11 mass-murderers can not be far away.

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