Eastwood's 'Iwo Jima' looks familiar

A famous U.S. war propaganda film from 1945 depicted Japanese soldiers as a relentless mass of people with identical faces and a singular purpose. Called "Know Your Enemy- Japan," it was directed by Frank Capra ("It's A Wonderful Life") and was withdrawn quickly when the fighting in the Pacific ceased. This opinion of the Japanese was widely held at the time by most Americans, and came more from an ignorance of Japanese culture and a need to demonize a wartime combatant than anything else.

Now, another beloved U.S. movie director is showing the opposite perspective, as Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" spotlights some of the 21,000 Japanese men who lost their lives defending the key island from some 110, 000 American invaders. What's amazing about this feat is that the film's release follows Eastwood's own U.S.-focused Iwo Jima movie "Flags of Our Fathers" by a mere three months. Where "Flags" examined the hero symbol-its purpose and effect-"Letters" is a straight up, good old fashioned anti-war film.

"Letters from Iwo Jima" may be almost completely in Japanese with subtitles, but it still comes from a traditional style of American filmmaking. The contemplative pacing may be the only similarity between this and the movies of Japanese masters like Akira Kurasawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Yet Eastwood succeeds at getting a convincing, unforced feeling of duty and honor from his actors. That goes a long way towards explaining how the Japanese army took on what amounted to a suicide mission in the first place.

Ken Watanabe is the stoic General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, whose letters to his family back home comprise at least part of the basis for a screenplay by Iris Yamashita. Faced with the unwinnable prospect of defending the island against overwhelming odds, Kuribayashi orders his troops to dig in, hollowing out miles of tunnels and caves. The man spent two years as a military attache in America, and was quoted as saying, "The U.S. is the last country in the world we should fight."

Movie

Letters From Iwo Jima *** 1/2

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Director Clint Eastwood's crowning achievement of his career is a work of great craftsmanship, conviction and dramatic power that portrays a crucial World War II battle from the vantage point of the enemy. His point is that the Emperor's infantrymen were as much the victims of the Japanese war machine as the GIs they fought.

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This dichotomy between loyalty to the Japanese empire and respect for his enemy forms the heart of "Letter From Iwo Jima." This is brought out most successfully in conversations between the General and equestrian Olympian Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who was a medal winner in the 1932 Los Angeles games. Both men bond over the simple pleasures of riding and caring for horses, and have deep conversations about nature and family. They are aristocratic men of a dying breed, and are on the island to serve the country that has given them these opportunities.

Some portrayals seem fairly Americanized, like Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker who quite unwillingly leaves his expecting wife at home to join the military. Saigo has more in common with Adam Sandler than he does with his noble higher-ups, as jokes around and complains out loud about digging massive amounts of tunnels. Because they were far outnumbered, Kuribayashi's strategy of literally 'digging in' proved a brilliant one, but the American forces were just too many for the Japanese to have a chance.

Most of the film takes place in these caves, as the Japanese struggle to resolve their strict allegiance with the fact that they will most certainly perish in the ensuing battle. Their country has given the commanders orders to hold the island no matter the cost. There are far less spectacularly mounted battle scenes than "Flags of Our Fathers," but one shot in particular illustrates the immense magnitude of war. After days of constant bombing by the Americans, Saigo is forced outside the caves to dump the latrine bucket when the sight of thousands of U.S. warships converging on the shores causes him to literally lose his shit.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" resonates with the best 'anti-war' war films because it questions the nobility of dying for a cause by holding up a mirror to ourselves. There is no doubt that the Japanese men who died defending the island died noble deaths as defined by their country. But when we can recognize so much of ourselves in the enemy, their idea of this brand of loyalty seems even more foreign. When one regiment fails to hold their position, Kuribayashi orders them to retreat. Their immediate commanding officer, however, announces that they have failed in their mission and must commit suicide, as is the tradition. To both Saigo and the audience, the choice is obvious.

If "Flags of Our Fathers" deconstructed the myth of the hero, then "Letters From Iwo Jima" only deepens our understanding of what is truly at stake when

countries go to war. All of the the Japanese soldiers, including many who thought the war was a bad idea, fought bravely for a country that knew they would perish in the battle. Rather than one relentless mass, the Japanese are individuals just like us. Their culture may be different, but their humanity looks very familiar.

Comments

feefifofum 15 years ago

Except their military was in no way "like us". Maybe Clint should have made a movie about Japan's military called RAPE OF NANKING or BLOODY SUNDAY AT PEARL HARBOR.

The U.S. has comitted atrocites that were deviations from the normal activity of the military in war. With Japan, atrocity was the norm. I don't think our military demanded that survivors of a battle commit suicide. Thank God the USA and the allies ended this part of the Japanese "culture".

feefifofum 15 years ago

No - we aren't fighting WW II anymore - we ended it (USA & Allies). It really is too bad that the Germans and Japanese lost. And the civilians from those countries that suffered have nobody to blame except their own military and government.

How about the ethnocentric positions of the Nazis and Japanese - read a history book.

rick_yamashiro 15 years ago

Although feefifofum certainly knows his/her history, it's apparent from these sanctimonious rants, this person completely misses the obvious underlying message of Eastwood's film. The film was meant to give a human face to ALL participants of war, using World War Two as a backdrop and in this specific case, giving the human face to the opposition. Its portrayal of soldiers as duty-bound men was certainly NOT meant to justify or whitewash historically-chronicled acts of brutality during World War Two - or any such acts in any war for that matter. Contrary to feefifofum's misplaced protestations, this film was ultimately about the humanity of the soldiers portrayed - the one element which does make "them" - and all "enemy" past or present indeed "like us" . Upon examination of the history of wars, war atrocities, and genocide, it becomes quite apparent that the prime motivational element behind such horror is the institutional and systematic practice of dehumanization of any given people and their culture. By rendering null and void the humanity of a people, demonizing them, the perpetrators of atrocity find subjective justification and rationalization with which to commit their butchery. It is ironic that, while taking the moral high-ground of documented history, feefifofum ultimately renders faceless the inherent humanity of a former enemy - the same dehumanizing principle by which atrocities past and present are routinely committed. Glibly passing off the ethnocentricity of German and Japanese people of nearly six decades ago to justify one's own in the 21st Century does not improve anything in these dangerous and faction-driven times.
I believe Eastwood was invoking a universal look at the human faces of the "enemy" - quite relevant in this time of division and dehumanization.

CalGal 15 years ago

Feefi wrote: "How about the ethnocentric positions of the Nazis and Japanese . . ."

Or the British, or the French, or the Norwegians, or the Pakastanis, or the Tongans, or the ___ (fill in the blank).

" . . . read a history book."

Perferably one written by someone with an actual understanding of the culture about which they write, not just an Americanized version of people and events.

feefifofum 15 years ago

You're right. We should of just waited off shore until the Japanese surrendered or killed themselves. If we had the time to study their culture - maybe things would have turned out different. And if we had a better understanding of the Japanese code of honor - the U.S. troops could have avoided a lot of suffering by just killing themselves instead of trying to survive the Bataan death march. Whoops - I americanized it - let's call it "the walk for peace."

Shelley Bock 15 years ago

Posted by Hepburn (anonymous) on January 23, 2007 at 11:23 a.m. (Suggest removal)

My father spent 4 yers in the Marine Corps 1st Division during WWII with landings on Guadalcanal, New Britain and Pelelu. He received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart on Pelelu. He ultimately spent 30+ years in the Marines and Marine Reserve retiring as a Master Gunnery Sgt.

If he was stil alive, he would have welcomed and enjoyed the message of this film. While he liked going to unit reunions in the years following the war, he found that too many of his peers let hate control their emotions. He often commented that the only difference between he and the Japanese was that he came from Iowa and they from Toyko. He saw that they were pawns for the powers to be in a struggle between good and evil. Whether they were American or Japanese, they each wanted to live and be with their families.

Of course he believed in America, the Constitution and American life. But, he could also understand how his enemy could have a different belief system and still be human. I once asked him about whether he fought for the American flag, mom and apple pie. His response was "NO!". He said he never saw the flag on Guadalacanal or Pelelu, you know grandma, and you've tasted her apple pie (not a good cook). He said he fought to "Keep myself alive, my buddies alive and for the thought of a cold beer, someday." He believed that the people shooting at him held the same feeling and felt fortunate to be going home one day for that cold beer

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