Letters from Iwo Jima, California

This week-end I watched the second part of Clint Eastwood’s two-part series on the Battle of Iwo Jima. Having already watched Flags of our Fathers (reviewed here), and not being averse to buying a box of Kleenex along with the pop-corn, I felt I had to watch this one. But this movie doesn’t deliver any of the sense of completion, loads of which had been promised. Despite being touted as the “Japanese version” of the same story, it is in every way, an American movie, made for American audiences.

A large part of why I was drawn to both movies (other than that they were made by Eastwood) was the novel idea of two movies about the same incident, an extended, and considerably more expensive Rashômon, as it were. As great an idea as this is, it doesn’t really work when there is little more than a superficial connection between the two movies. The first movie is more a social commentary on a country at war, specifically the United States of America, than it is a movie about one particular battle. While some of the most spectacular bits of the movie are set in Iwo Jima, much of it actually takes place back home, where we learn the many ways in which a minor incident in the battle at Iwo Jima impacts the lives of thousands, if not everyone in the home country.

Letters from Iwo Jima, in contrast, is almost exclusively limited to the little island. We, along with thousands of Japanese troops, wait for everyone (or nearly everyone) to die. Sure, there are back-stories for the odd soldier or two. Suitable flashbacks involving pregnant wives and other assorted members of families left behind provide the necessary Kleenex-moments that would be expected from a war movie, particularly one about the losing side.

So, we learn that the mainland has no resources to spare and it expects the soldiers at Iwo Jima to do their duty and die honorably for their country. But in keeping the story strictly about the battle itself, we don’t learn anything about well, anything really. Was losing the island strategically and tactically at all a big deal? What was going through the minds of those in Tokyo who were forced to make the decision to let Iwo Jima go? If the entire country of United States was so cheered up by the win at Iwo Jima, what was the parallel outcome in Japan after their loss? If this battle supposedly was the beginning of the Americans’ eventual victory, then was it also the beginning of the end for the Japanese? Or did this loss so rally forces stationed elsewhere, that it took two A-bombs to make them call it quits? If you want these questions answered, go read a book or something.

After they learn that they’ve been left to their own devices to survive, the leadership at Iwo Jima falls into two groups – with the more traditional lot advocating and in many cases, forcing suicide on the soldiers they command, because, as we have learnt from all those other Samurai movies – losing in battle is far worse than dying. The more liberal minority (comprising a grand total of two) feels that tactical retreat isn’t necessarily something that demands seppuku, and that killing yourself can be limited to more desperate situations – such as those where one is almost fatally wounded and only slowing down the rest of the group from making an escape.

My biggest complaint with the movie is this liberal minority. General Kuribayashi and Captain Nishi are the only enlightened commanders on the island. They always treat their soldiers fairly, and act with great nobility and heroism when others might have folded. Played by Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara respectively, they are also incredibly easy on the eye. All of which is grand. But here’s the crux – at some point in their lives, they’ve both been exposed to America. Kuribayashi was in the US for some official reason, before the two countries declared war on each other. And Nishi was a champion at the 1932 Summer Olympics held at Los Angeles. Heck, he was even friends with Hollywood stars!

By making only these two characters noble and heroic, it feels as if the movie’s telling us that only those Japanese lucky enough to have been exposed to American culture are great, while the rest of the country is filled with suicidal brutes. I wondered if it would have helped if even one of them had visited some country other than the US. But had they visited another Western country, or any other country in the world for that matter, doesn’t it still say that goodness and sensibility are traits which weren’t inherent even in a minority of the Japanese, and had to be imported from elsewhere? Nishi’s final speech (another Kleenex-moment) to his men borrows its key message from a letter written by an American mom to her son, which I felt was the last straw!

And what traits are inherent to the Japanese? A commitment to the team, a willingness to follow even the harshest of orders, and a strong sense of honor? C’mon, Mr. Eastwood, surely you can do better than Tom Cruise! Coming from Sofia Coppola, one might be willing to overlook such superficiality as ignorance. Coming from one of whom much is expected (because much has been delivered in the past), it smacks of pure arrogance. For all its Japanese actors and English subtitles, Letters from Iwo Jima is such an American movie.

Final verdict: Give this movie a skip. If you’re really in the mood for a good cry, wait for the DVD.

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2 comments so far

  1. Siri on

    Hi, I am coming here for the first time. I had to tax my brain quite a bit trying to recall where I had heard of Zihuatanejo before and finally I struck gold in some recess of my brain – The Shawshank Redemption! Nice title!

  2. booksmovieslife on

    Siri: Thank you! You’re the only one who figured out the title. Am really glad someone finally did 🙂


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