Letters from Iwo Jima (硫黄島からの手紙)

Today I had the opportunity to watch Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” depicting the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side. This American-produced film was nominated for Best Picture for both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.

Much of the film chronicles the views of real-life figures on the island such as Army Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Army Lt. Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi while also showing the views of normal IJA soldiers such as Private Saigo and Shimizu. Both Kuribayashi and Nishi are given positive portrayals, being the only real-life figures who not only commanded the IJA during the Battle of Iwo Jima, but for having spent several years abroad in America. In real life, Kuribayashi was Canadian-educated officer who traveled extensively across the United States while Nishi was an 1932 Olympic Gold Medalist that hung out with popular Hollywood social circles.

The characters portrayed by Saigo and Shimizu represent the “good” Japanese who are unwillingly brought into conflict by the Imperial power structure with Saigo being a married baker before being conscripted while Shimizu was an ethical Kempeitai officer that was demoted for disobeying an order to kill a Japanese family’s dog. If I wanted to criticise Hollywood for stereotypes, I would say that the portrayals of the main characters of the film seem to reaffirm Hollywood’s idealised vision of the Japanese that is anti-war, humble, and enlightened by exposure to the West, which appears to be consistent with portrayals in “The Last Samurai”, “The Sand Pebbles” and “Memoirs of a Geisha”.

The story begins in Iwo Jima in 2005 when a Japanese archaeological team unearths a bag of letters during a routine expedition in tunnels dug for the American attack. It then goes into a flashback tracing the fall of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view told mainly by Saigo and Kuribayashi. Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe from “The Last Samurai” fame, orders his men to build a network of tunnels to fight a protracted defensive war against the Americans contrary to the Imperial command, who wants defences along the beach. Much of the first half explores the deteriorating conditions on Iwo Jima such as soldiers dying from dysentery, the brutal training by military officers, and the lack of morale when they learned the Combined Fleet was annihilated at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Much of the film shows the absurdities of the Imperial Japanese Army’s wartime conduct in the battle. In one scene, upon expecting Mount Suribachi to fall, the commanding officer orders his entire platoon to commit suicide with grenades instead of falling back to the Northern Caves as ordered by Kuribayashi. Another scene depicts Japanese officers conducting Banzai Charges against the Americans against orders from Kuribayashi and Nishi again with one officer going out on his own to commit a suicide attack after he was forced to leave his troops under Nishi’s command. The senseless conduct of adhering to outdated values in battle such as Harakiri without fighting and conducting Banzai Charges in defiance of orders led to the senseless loss of lives, which reflect Eastwood’s anti-war sentiments.

Letters of Iwo Jima also briefly explored the brutal reality of war in several scenes. In one scene, a captured American was used for bayonet practise by Japanese soldiers while the Americans killed Japanese POWs that surrendered in another scene because they didn’t want to watch over them. On the other hand, the director, Clint Eastwood, also tried to show the human side of the war with flashbacks of Kuribayashi’s experiences in America and with Nishi’s effort to comfort a captured American POW. Moreover, Nishi later reads a letter from the American POW and his men learn the similarities their enemies have with them as human beings.

I felt Eastwood’s interpretation of the Battle of Iwo Jima was interesting and bold to a certain extent. It’s interesting how his career started when he starred in a series of Italian-produced and Italian-directed American Westerns and now he is getting huge acclaim by directing and producing a Japanese film which humanises the IJA. It’s a bold project that received critical acclaim from major Hollywood critics and a box office success when it opened in Japan.

However, there are a few critics that point out the other side of the film. In the Indepedent’s review of “Iwo Jima”, the critic points out that part of the reason “Flags of Our Fathers”, the American version of the film, didn’t receive as much prominence was because Eastwood had used part of the film as an allegory to the mistreatment of Iraq War Veterans:

In short, it’s a traditional film wearing the uniform of a revisionist one, which could explain why it got the Oscar recognition and not Flags of Our Fathers. The best films of Eastwood’s later years have come about when he’s revisited the genre movies he starred in when he was younger, and sandblasted off their mythic coating to reveal the dark reality underneath. He applied this method to Westerns (Unforgiven), cop thrillers (Mystic River) and sports movies (Million Dollar Baby), and then, with Flags of Our Fathers, he did the same with war films. In telling the true story behind the iconic photograph of the stars and stripes being raised atop Mount Suribachi, he scorned the hypocrisy of labelling every soldier a hero, and he condemned the US Government’s treatment of veterans. The surviving flag-raisers of Iwo Jima were paraded around the land when there was money to be raised, but after the war they were dumped on the scrapheap. Flags of Our Fathers would have been making a bold statement at any time. Making it when there’s a war on, Eastwood was lucky not to be arrested for high treason.

These themes explored in “Flags of Our Fathers” were bold in these times, but it’s also interesting to note that Hollywood likes to see the ugly side of traditional film genres. In addition to placing Eastwood’s recent success in context and speculating on the relative failure of “Flags of Our Fathers”, the critic also makes a point about Hollywood’s patronising attitudes towards Asians or Japanese in this case:

Letters From Iwo Jima doesn’t have much to say except that Japanese are human beings, too. Its message is that the troops are conscripts who would rather be at home with their families, and that while there are one or two zealots among the officers, most of them are capable of being decent, caring fellows, just so long as they’ve spent some time in the United States. Maybe it’s inevitable that if an American director pays tribute to the bravery of foreign forces he’ll end up with a timid, circumspect film. As a respectful guest in the house of Japanese history, Eastwood couldn’t examine their war crimes, for instance, without defeating the point of the patronising exercise. All he’s done is prove that Hollywood can be just as mawkish about other country’s soldiers as it can about its own.

Despite these usual flaws from Hollywood, Eastwood has done a great job directing a largely Japanese film and generating interest in a little-known side of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Oddly enough, Shintaro Ishihara, the Governor of Tokyo, criticised the film’s lack of screentime for Americans and for not showing the damage the IJA caused to Americans in the entire battle while shamelessly plugging his movie “I Go to Die for You” (俺は、君のためにこそ死ににいく) about Japanese Kamakaze pilots. This is quite ironic because Ishihara was the one who supported Eastwood’s project and even gave him access to film location shots in Iwo Jima for the 2005 sequences.

Overall, I recommend everyone to watch the film to learn more about the Japanese or American perceived views of Japan’s attitudes towards the Second World War and the Battle of Iwo Jima. I now also plan on watching “Flags of Our Fathers” to get a fuller perspective of the Battle of Iwo Jima and its aftermath.


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