A Film by Clint Eastwood
Letters from Iwo Jima is the chilling telling of the slaughter that was the Battle of Iwo Jima between the United States and Japan. The film is told entirely from the Japanese perspective, and focus’ on a small hand full of soldiers, including Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played amazingly by Ken Watanabe) whose undelivered letters home were the basis of the films story.
The Battle of Iwo Jima happened in February of 1945, and it was one of the most fierce and bloody battles that took place during the Pacific campaign of World War II. It was a turning point of the war that is no doubt, but it came at a heavy loss. Not only for Japan, but for the Allies as well. The battle is most famous for the photo of three American soldiers raising their flag atop the Mount Suribachi (the islands highest point). That photo is the basis for Eastwoods film ‘Flags of Our Fathers’.
However that film focus on the men who raised the flag, and how they had to deal with what they felt was undeserved praises of heroism when they got home. But its Eastwoods counter film (filmed at the same time as Flags), ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ which truly tells the story of what happened during that battle. It is told from the side of the Japanese, who were with out proper food, ammunition, and incredibly out numbered. They were also left hung out to dry with no air or water support, and no reinforcements, (what manpower was available to Japan saved to protect the homeland). This would be the cause of what would become a one sided slaughter. The Japanese did have the island to begin with, and under the supreme leadership of general Kuribayashi they could have stood a chance, but without proper support their effort proved futile.
Letters focus mainly on a few of the soldiers, and the general himself, using very effective flash back sequences to tell their back story. One character Saigo(Ninomiya) was a simple baker who had a wife and a baby on the way. He spends all his free time writing letters to his wife telling her his war stories, in fact he writes so many letters that the person in charge of delivering them becomes worried that they might get suspicious of him. So in one of the few humorous moments he opens a letter and starts to edit it. Leaving Saigo in shock and embarrassment. Then there is Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former member of the Kempeitai military police who was demoted for insubordination because he refused to shoot a barking dog. Lieutenant Ito (Played very well by Shido Nakamura) is a very uptight power hungry officer who seems very close to losing it, and by the ending events comes pretty damn close. Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) was a former Olympian for Horse jumping. He is looked at as a celebrity, and is also one of the better liked officers on the island.
Finally there is Gen. Kuribayashi played to perfection by the great Ken Watanabe. His leadership techniques were not liked by most of the other officers. They believed it to be honorable that if they felt defeated they kill themselves instead of being killed by the enemy. However Kuribayashi wanted his men to push forward at all costs, and though he knew they did not stand a chance his orders were “Kill 10 enemies before you die”. It is believed that the battle that should have ended in 5 days, lasted 3 months because of him alone.
This is indeed an accomplishment considering the film for the most part is entirely Japanese, and I am not sure but I don’t think Eastwood speaks Japanese. Though most of the primary cast does speak English, a lot of his direction would have had to go though a translator. Though this may turn off some viewers who do not frequent foreign films, It could not have been done any other way. It didn’t work in Memories of a Geisha (having the cast speak English seriously hurt that film) so it definitely would not have worked in Letters. The acting from everyone, well everyone Japanese, was very well done. I say ‘everyone Japanese’ because the few American actors, who were basically extras, were not that impressive. You really start to feel for the characters, because the film teaches an important lesson, that these soldiers were not the enemy. They were no different from any other soldier fighting for any other country. They were human beings who were called to war and fought for their country. Just like the Americans, the British, the Germans, and so on. There was a degree of brainwashing. Which is brought up in the film.
At one point they take an American marine named Sam captive. When Baron Nishi reads aloud a letter from Sam's mother. The solders suddenly realize that he is not what they have been taught, he is just like them, and his mother is just like their mother. It is a truly touching moment. In fact the entire film is a touching moment, Its one of those rare films that when the picture fades, and the credits start rolling. You just sit, collect yourself, take a deep breath, and just...wow!