Letters From Iwo Jima

March, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Clint Eastwood

Starring:Ken Watanabe , Kazunari Ninomiya , Tsuyoshi Ihara , Ryo Kase , and music

An elegiac air pervades Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood’s palindromic take on that bloody battle fought in the closing months of WW II. Handsomely shot in the same washed-grey tones used in its predecessor, (Flags of Our Fathers - which told the story from the American point of view), this time the conflict is seen through the eyes of the island’s Japanese defenders. If nothing else, Eastwood definitively drives coffin nails into the cinematic notion that war is glorious. The movie moves crisply, features a number of skilled performances and deserves the critical acclaim it’s already generated. Whether you’ll actually enjoy it is something else. 

Screenwriter Iris Yamashita crafted her script from a book of sketches and letters written by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the general in charge of the island’s defense. As portrayed by Ken Wanatabe, (Memoirs of a Geisha, Batman Begins, The Last Samurai) Kuribayashi emerges as a thoughtful and honorable man who somehow manages to balance a genuine concern for his men with the military traditions of his homeland, which revered death in battle and considered surrender, even in the face of overwhelming odds, as  profound dishonor. Provided no friendly air or naval support, unable to obtain essential provisions and outnumbered 10 to 1 by American forces, the general knew from the beginning that the situation was hopeless. Despite those circumstances, Japan’s soldiers fought with savage bravery; many committed suicide, (often at the direct orders of their superiors) rather than allow themselves to be taken prisoner.

Eastwood concentrates on a quartet of Japanese combatants; the general, Baron Nishi, (a professional soldier and Olympic equestrian who, like Kuribayashi, spent time in California in the 1930’s and had a number of American friends) and two privates, one steeped in military culture and the other a draftee. By contrasting the basic decency of these quite different men, Iwo Jima demolishes the 60 year old demonization of the Japanese which Hollywood has so successfully sold to international movie audiences. The script humanizes America’s old enemy, but it relies so heavily on its principal characters that it often turns them into spokespersons for Eastwood’s revisionist point of view, injecting the film’s admirable linear narrative with some segments of self-conscious moralizing. 

That said, this is a film to admire, rather than enjoy; it’s unrelentingly grim, often repetitious in making its points and concludes with a rather theatrically contrived dénouement at odds with the blunt and admirable matter-of-factness which preceded it. But Eastwood deserves the plaudits he’s received for delivering an unvarnished examination of battle as straightforward hell on earth.

Despite its many virtues, I believe box-office success will elude Iwo Jima, just as did Flags of Our Fathers last year; are both films examples of cinematic castor oil, good for you but no fun to experience?   

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