Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Letters from Iwo Jima

With this film comes the completion of Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima saga and we now get to see the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese viewpoint. As always, Eastwood explores what heroism, combined with patriotism, means in the Japanese psyche. After we've watched this film, it's amazing for us, Westerners, to see how the film is a smart exploration of sufferings endured by people that we believe to be tough (i.e. dying at all cost for one's country). In the end, the power of this film lies in its ability to avoid being a caricature of the samurai mentality.


In 1945, Japan gets prepared to fight back against an American invasion that will start on the island of Iwo Jima. Despite not being enthusiast about the war, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) seeks to defend the island out of patriotism. In fact, he's aware that the Americans, in case of victory, would use the island as a launching point to invade Japan's mainland. In the lower echelons, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young private, strives to survive in order to come back to his wife. Near the end of the battle, the Japanese army is short of food, water and ammunition. Despite that, the soldiers' will and courage will make the battle last for more than 30 days.

In all fairness and with all due respect, Letters from Iwo Jima is better than the other film. With the script's focus that leaps at one's eyes right at the beginning, the few cut-back-and-forth moments work better in this film given the amazing character development. In both sub-plots (i.e. the focus on Kuribayashi and Saigo), the script shows well how the two leading characters, in their own way, are not necessarily willing to go to war and therefore confront the code of honour that has prevailed in the Japanese psyche for a long time.

After all, as the film interestingly points it out, what is bravery? Does it come from a soldier who rushes heedlessly into battle to serve his country (even if it means dying)? Does it come from a soldier (Saigo) who cares about his life in order to see his wife and his daughter as he's serving? Given the questions that are raised, Letters from Iwo Jima avoids being a caricature about the Japanese's code of honour since it's shot with no glitz and glamour.

Besides, Iris Yamashita's heartbreaking script can be seen as an ode to life. While there are soldiers and officers who prefer suicide over the humiliation that comes with defeat (or withdrawal), others like Kuribayashi and Saigo push the film into an incredible zone of depth by showing their definition of life. For both of these characters, a soldier who is alive (and thus one who tactically falls back when it's needed) is more useful to the Empire than one who commits suicide and therefore can't contribute to the war effort. As for Saigo, in the midst of something as useless as war, he finds solace in thinking that one day, he'll be back to his wife and daughter. All in all, this where the film, while being a historical account, avoids being a glorification of war.

Finally, I haven't seen all of Clint Eastwood directorial works, but this one really moved me. As always, Eastwood, comes up with a well shot and well acted film. To that matter, if you want to pay attention to the performance, watch Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai), Kazunari Ninomiya and Ryo Kase, who plays Shimizu. Moreover, it's so rare to see such a film that brings so many layers of grey in the image of Japanese as we, Westerners, envision them. Hence the dramatic depth of the film.

Rating: 4.5/5


Origin:USA (2006)
Length:141 minutes
Genre:War drama
Screenplay:Iris Yamashita
Director:Clint Eastwood
Starring:Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Ryo Kase, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Shido Nakamura and Hiroshi Watanabe


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