by Rob Gonsalves
'Letters from Iwo Jima,' Clint Eastwood’s companion film to his earlier 'Flags of Our Fathers,' tells the story of men who know they’re going to die. In fact, dying for the honor of their Emperor and their homeland is their one cold comfort. What happens, though, when that comfort isn’t enough?Having made a World War II movie from the American viewpoint, Eastwood rotates his camera 180 degrees and looks through the eyes of the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, many of whom would much rather be home with their wives and families than defending some rocky island against people they have no personal enmity toward. Even the commander of the defense, Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), has been to the U.S. and counts some Americans as friends.
"Clint scores again. One of the great war movies."
Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern shoot in near-black-and-white. Iwo Jima is presented here as a grim place with a grim purpose: to prevent the Americans from taking the island and using it as a base. If Iwo Jima is lost, the war is lost. Many of the soldiers, like Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), are young men conscripted into the fight after the war has already ruined their lives. Saigo, who has a wife and baby girl back home, once owned a bakery until the government turned all the metal in his kitchen into weapons. Another man, Shimizu (Ryo Kase), is dispatched to Saigo’s unit, where some of the men suspect him of being sent to spy on them by the Japanese secret police.
Letters from Iwo Jima explores the imperial pathology of the time, expected to be absorbed without question by all citizens and soldiers. Much is made of “patriotism,” and the smallest complaining in the ranks is grounds for swift, harsh punishment. The lower-level officers, hoping to rise in rank, enforce the military will mercilessly; Kuribayashi, however, is older and more worldly. He will do his duty, and expects his men to do theirs, but never forgets that they are men, not robots. At certain points, I couldn’t help reading the Japanese soldiers’ struggle as Eastwood’s sideways method of speaking to the Iraq War — from either side. Together with Flags of Our Fathers, he has made an anti-war monument, a strong argument that violence should be a last resort no matter what the official propaganda — whether Tojo or Fox News — tells you.
On its own, Letters from Iwo Jima is a fine, textured study of war, one that considers the strategic side as well as the human side without sacrificing either. Kuribayashi, who still carries a gun given to him by his California friends, knows most of his men are doomed, and Ken Watanabe is both soulful and commanding. We feel that Kuribayashi sees a younger version of himself in Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya with an intense awareness of how much he’s lost and how much he may still lose. Surrender is the least honorable thing the men can do, given their culture, but Eastwood lets us see the practical honor of it. One soldier speaks of being willing to die for his country, but not to die for nothing; another quotes from a letter sent to a dead American soldier by his mother: “Do what’s right because it’s right.”
If the movie garners top honors at the Oscars — as well it might, and, I think, deserves to (moreso than Eastwood’s previous winner, Million Dollar Baby) — it might be Hollywood’s indirect way of sending an anti-war, anti-Bush message. Far more successfully than Saving Private Ryan, Letters from Iwo Jima takes the measure of war and sums it up as a sad, counterproductive business, grinding average men under the wheels of corrupt leaders.To point that out in wartime Japan was considered dangerously unpatriotic. To point it out in wartime America was, too, a few short years ago.
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originally posted: 02/05/07 12:29:15