Letters from Iwo Jima

Continuing with my series on Best Picture nominees . . .

Letters from Iwo Jima–Clint Eastwood’s counterpart to Flags of Our Fathers–tells the story of the battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who knew they had no chance of defending the Pacific island from the impending US invasion. Ken Watanabe plays the commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who clashes with his officers over defensive strategy and disciplinary matters, feels torn by his knowledge of Americans from his time in the States, and befriends the lowly soldier Saito, portrayed by Kazunari Ninomiya. Saito, after courageously taking leave of his pregnant wife back home, where he had already lost his business under the harsh policies of the imperial government, becomes disillusioned on Iwo Jima and questions authority and the purpose of the war. Shimizu, played by Ryo Kase, has a background with the imperial police that makes Saito despise him, but Shimizu’s path to Iwo Jima proves more complex than initially thought. And Tsuyoshi Ihara, as Baron Nishi, a celebrated former Olympic champion horse jumper who has also befriended American stars in his time abroad, brings a dignity and grace to his command position that contrasts with the other ruthless commanders who plot mutiny against Kuribayashi and have been so brainwashed by propaganda as to put no value on human life.

Letters from Iwo Jima

[Warning: some spoilers in the next two paragraphs.]

The “letters” motif is carried on through the writings of Kuribayashi and Saito to their families, which capture their personal devastation, and the physical desperation of the soldiers–who run out of food, water, medicine, and eventually ammunition–is similarly palpable in many scenes. The power of this film is in the resonance of the characters’ nightmare predicament. While viewing the movie, I naturally came to wonder: How would I react under such dire circumstances? Is there such a thing as an “honorable death” for a lost cause? (There is an extremely graphic and unforgettable sequence in which soldiers ritualistically commit suicide by standing in a circle and taking turns clutching grenades to their chests and blowing themselves apart.)

The movie seems to be saying no by contrasting Kuribayashi, Saito, and Nishi with the mindless, suicidal mutineers. True, Kuribayashi and Nishi end up committing suicide in their own ways, and there is no knowing what will be left for Saito, who, after his capture by the Americans, we last see lying among the injured on the beach, waiting to be taken away. But still, their ends are more inescapable than honorable, more a testament to the cruelty of war than to anything resembling glory. [End: spoilers.]

Or maybe the film isn’t making a point about right or wrong at all. Perhaps the movie carries a simple message and, as Time magazines’s Bryan Walsh, quoting Watanabe, put it, “‘It is a testimony to what war is’ — war in its universal immediacy.” (The linked article interestingly notes the movie’s box office success in Japan.)

Unlike many critics, I liked Flags of Our Fathers very much too, but I found Letters from Iwo Jima better. I think the reason may be the much-touted Japanese perspective, which is truly fresh, whereas the US side of things, no matter how well done, is familiar ground that has been covered many times over. The simplicity of Letters, with fewer flashbacks and less of the homefront story, may have also been an advantage in constructing a more coherent and powerful war film.

All in all, this is a deserving Best Picture nominee, worthy of being compared with the best war movies ever made. Still, I would rate The Departed ahead of it for the Academy Award; that’s probably based mostly on genre preference and higher entertainment value, rather than anything objective I can point to.

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