Title: Letters from Iwo Jima
Genre: Drama, History, War
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriters: Iris Yamashita
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara
I think that this is what everyone was looking for. It’s strange — I continue to believe that Flags of Our Fathers is a poorly written, ineffective film, but there’s a plausible argument that it was entirely essential to the success and power of its better half, Letters from Iwo Jima; I could even argue, if I had to, that the first movie’s very lameness makes a significant contribution to its follow-up. That last shot of Ryan Phillippe, Jamie Bell and friends frolicking on the beach, though inert and flat even then, surely becomes utterly horrifying when considered in this new context. Hey, maybe there was a reason we felt nothing back in October.
For a while, though, I worried about Letters from Iwo Jima. It seemed to be headed toward a) an emphatic rejection of all traditional Japanese notions of honor and morality, and b) the realization that it is the invading Americans who have the right idea when it comes to those things. When a Japanese officer reads out loud a letter from an American soldier’s mother to her son as his demoralized troops begin to stand one-by-one, I became concerned. When an officer responds to an underling’s rabble rousing to the effect that Americans would as soon kill a Japanese as look at him with a stern, righteous “son, have you ever met one?” I started to panic. Was Eastwood going to turn his account of Iwo Jima from a Japanese perspective into a piece of American military pom-pom waving?
I was wrong — and so was everyone in the film, about most things. To the extent that Letters from Iwo Jima can be reduced to a “message,” it’s a film about misconceptions: their tremendous influence and their destructive power. To a point, Eastwood does stage an assault on stereotypical Japanese notions of courage and honor, suggesting that at least in 1945, they resulted in heaps of mutilated corpses. When he shows scores of Japanese soldiers, having failed to hold the line at whatever mountain or cave they were assigned, yell “Banzai” and hug grenades, Eastwood is crystal clear: these people have been duped.
But it is not, thankfully, that simple. Eastwood also makes clear that surrendering to the Americans is hardly a terrific idea, and though he is sure to contrast the notion of loyalty to one’s country with the horror and immediacy of putting that loyalty to the test on the battlefield, the former remains very much in play. There is a heartbreaking flashback of General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a guest of honor at a fancy American dinner, telling a military wife in the friendliest possible terms that in battle, he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot at her husband, though the two are friends — he must, he says, have the courage of his convictions, and his convictions and those of his nation are one and the same. These are the words of a great general, delivered with self-effacing grace and absolute dignity, but then we see him holed up in a cave, his defense in shambles, his men dropping like flies, and himself careening toward certain death if only because of what custom dictates, and those words seem as hollow as the sight of Ryan Phillippe and his buddies playing in the ocean.
Eastwood has an extraordinarily clear-eyed view of this confusion. His framing device and narrative gimmick — soldiers writing to their loved ones from the island, more-or-less certain they will never see them again — is the kind of thing that would ordinarily annoy me, but here it’s unobtrusive and even moving; Eastwood and his screenwriter, Iris Yamashita, don’t use it to advance the narrative, instead offering a glimpse into the minds of the characters. The letters are level-headed, even serene, the men worrying about their families and painting comparatively rosy pictures of their surroundings, but even here Eastwood doesn’t allow for an easy bit of sentimentality: the last shot of the film reveals something about these letters we surely already knew but found too horrifying to acknowledge. Very little that was Japanese got off that island.
Ken Watanabe turns in a performance of crushing power. From the moment he appears, General Kuribayashi has an unmistakable personality: a stern-but-kindly military busybody, an experienced and wise general who cares little for appearances, doesn’t mince words, knows what he’s doing, and takes care of his own. To watch his subtle transformation throughout the film, as his homeland abandons him and his soldiers, and defeat and death become a reality rather than a probability or a certainty, is to watch a man realize the consequences of the convictions to which he’s dedicated his life and face them with dignity and courage. He’s the embodiment of actual honor.
There are other highlights. Kazunari Ninomiya, a pop idol in Japan, gives a masterful performance of a different sort as an unassuming, profoundly ordinary draftee, our most direct entry point into the film. The movie covers a stunning amount of ground without being very long, and every major character is given careful, insightful treatment. But Eastwood’s greatest accomplishment transcends individual moments of artistry. With Letters from Iwo Jima, he approaches the elusive holy grail, given the entertainment value of battle sequences: the true anti-war film. Flags of Our Fathers was just a warm-up. Letters from Iwo Jima joins Gallipoli and Black Hawk Down on a spare list of works that try to deal with war on its own terms rather than Hollywood’s.