IMDB #209 Letters From Iwo Jima

Hey readers! Remember when we learned about how terrible it was to be in World War One? It turns out World War Two pretty much sucked as well. My question is, when the hell does war ever get fun? Is In The Army Now on this countdown?

No, no it isn't. This means we're faced with the grim reality of 2006's Letters From Iwo Jima, containing much more pathos and realism (and absolutely no Pauly Shore).

The Key Players:

Clint Eastwood becomes our first countdown threepeat! See #229 Mystic River and #213 Changeling for the skinny on the originator of the "Batman Voice."

Iris Yamashita wrote the screenplay, and shares a story credit with the inscrutable Paul Haggis, once again proving he belongs not in the director's chair, but behind the proverbial typewriter.

Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe, known to us uncouth Americans from The Last Samurai and Batman Begins, headlines a nearly all-Japanese cast that I know from nothing else. Co-star Kazunari Ninomiya is apparently a popstar/actor/radio host in Japan of Timberlakian proportion, notably.

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The Story:

Letters tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective- Eastwood's previous, much less lauded film Flags Of Our Fathers had just depicted the American side (though it focused as much on the famous flag-raising photograph and its effects as on the battle itself).

Eastwood, as much as he courts the moral grey area by depicting both sides of the same battle, still populates the film with effectually good guys and bad guys: our audience surrogates are General Kuribayashi (Watanabe), a forward-thinking general, former Olympic horse jumper Nishi, and Private Saigo (Ninomiya), who just wants to return home to his wife and child.

Those three stand in arms at many different moments with the traditionally uyielding, suicide-in-the-face-of-defeat officers Oshugi, Hayashi, Ito and Tarida.

Anyway, we follow Saigo as he digs trenches and tunnels preparing for the coming siege by U. S. troops, watching his comrades die from dysentery and missing his young wife and child. Kuribayashi laments the lack of support from the mainland- Iwo Jima is ultimately to receive no air, ground, or naval support, despite its prominence as a Pacific launching pad.

The enemy arrives, and the defenses at Mount Suribachi, with Saigo among them, are quickly overwhelmed despite the heavy losses dealt to American troops landing on the volcanic ash beaches. By radio, Kuribayashi orders remaining troops to retreat to the northern caves- the officers on hand, however, honor tradition instead of the general, and order all troops at Suribachi to commit suicide.

After a hoorifying scene in which Saigo watches all but one of his compatriots hold grenades to their chests as they explode, he convinces one other nervous soldier named Shimizu to retreat with him, claiming it is more honorable to continue fighting.

We follow them through a series of harrowing confrontations as they survive ill-fated charges ordered by bull-headed officers, leave behind a blinded-by-shrapnel Nishi (who then commits suicide), and finally near the north tunnels. Shimizu, Saigo's last friend, surrenders to the Americans in an effort to avoid a pointless death, but is carelessly shot by a GI that didn't want to stand guard duty (mirroring the earlier bayonetting of an American POW at the hands of the Japanese).

Finally Saigo and a handful of others reach Kuribayashi, and prepare to mount a last, doomed charge.

Throughout this entire narrative, we see Nishi, Kuribayashi, and Saigo write letters to their wives and children that will never be sent.

The Artistry:

I neglected to mention a modern day framing device in which said letters are discovered in the present, because it adds pretty much nothing other than some archaeologist-type dudes finding some letters. Oh, modern-day framing devices, will you ever go away?

Anyway, Letters From Iwo Jima is nearly our second black and white film in a row, except that its just nearly colorless- it's sort of washed out with grey, letting only the occasional orange explosion or red spatter of blood through the filter, and it certainly sets a bleak tone.

Eastwood, still making everything a western, pits our "fight to the death" cowboy type Japanese officers (Nishi even brings his horse with him) against the "die as soon as you fail at fighting" Japanese stalwarts, and its easy to read it as a condemnation of the quasi-religious Japanese fervor that stoked the war effort for so long.

That said, it's not as if Eastwood is stretching the facts: of 10,000 Japanese soldiers at Iwo Jima, only 216 were taken prisoner. It's just a little convenient that the two opponents of this seemingly irrational belief system, Nishi and Kuribayashi, both think fondly of time they spent in America. Nishi is also the one shown connecting with a wounded American captive, chatting with him about the States, while the other POW is violently stabbed to death.

Saigo is a more effective surrogate, since he just wants to go home, and he has a more universal soldiers tale of enlistment, disillusionment, and a sense of self-preservation above all. His journey may as well be that of a German soldier in All Quiet On The Western Front.

Though the entire story is told with Eastwood's typical one-take directness, it's a pretty stolidly paced two hours twenty minutes- it drags a little bit before the enemy arrives, but really drives home the length of the battle thereafter.

Cinematographer (and frequent Eastwood collaborator) Tom Stern is pretty seamless with the battle mise en scene- I noticed that the camera would be steady as we watched soldiers prepare to fire, and the shake as the guns went off, mirroring the recoil effect. Touches like those (and the Oscar-winning Sound Editing) really put you into the battle, something we sort of take for granted in a post-Saving Private Ryan world.


Kuribayashi, having twice earlier saved Saigo from the wrath of other officers, saves him a third time by ordering him to stay behind and burn important intelligence while everyone else stages the final charge.

That charge, of course, goes disastrously, and Saigo emerges onto the beach to find a dying Kuribayashi, pulled away from the mayhem, and grants his last wish- to bury his body where "no one can find it." Kuribayashi shoots himself, in order to die while Iwo Jima is still technically Japanese soil.

Saigo is later taken captive by American troops, and the Battle of Iwo Jima finally ends.


Overall: Should it be Higher or Lower?

The Verdict: Slightly Lower

Definitely a worthy war-movie, as restrained in its bleak and unflinching portrayal of a lost cause as All Quiet On The Western Front was over the top in the wake of the silent movie era.

I only wish that there were more of an effort to understand the culture that was in the last throes of war, rather than glorify the more modern-thinking characters. And I'm not asking for a complex voice-over digression, just perhaps characters that bridged that gap more effectively (to be fair, there was Lt. Okubo, who didn't mind the order to retreat, but shot a fellow soldier that wanted to surrender).

The Legacy:

One Oscar for sound, a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film (it wasn't eligible for the corresponding Oscar, which might be more correctly called "Best Foreign Production"- it requires a foreign director, and shooting location. Letters was filmed mostly in California and Eastwood is as American as they come).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

The troubling scene in which people blow themselves up- I appreciated that this is presented without an excess of dramatic framing or heavy score. Just one by one.

Leftover Thoughts:

-I was pretty ready to be pissed if this stole the Oscar from The Departed at the 79th Oscars, but in retrospect it stacks up pretty well against that film. It was more of a spillover from Scorsese still not having an Award for directing at that point, and Million Dollar Baby over The Aviator the year before.

-I first saw this in an empty, very cold theater in January 2007, and I remember getting chills when characters were supposed to be sweltering in extreme heat. It was odd.

Coming Up...

Friday, September 18th: The Lost Weekend

Tuesday, September 22nd: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

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