Letters From Iwo Jima

2006, Movie, R, 140 mins

Review

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
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Far from a mirror image of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, which contained scenes of the battle of Iwo Jima seen exclusively from the U.S. perspective, the "Japanese" half of Clint Eastwood's Iwo diptych is exactly the kind of film FLAGS' detractors were hoping for: a conventional war narrative, expertly told, powerfully acted and filled with moments of brutal truth, savage grace and old-fashioned hokum. Iwo Jima, 1945: General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives on the grim Pacific island knowing it's only a matter of time before U.S. forces storm Iwo Jima in an attempt to destroy the airstrips blocking an all-out aerial assault on the Japanese mainland. General Kuribayashi is joined by the dashing Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a champion equestrian who competed alongside the Americans in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Gentlemen warriors both, they sip wine and bemoan this age of mechanized warfare and the mindless, dehumanizing nationalism gripping their beloved homeland. Much to the dismay of officers overseeing the fortification of Iwo's black-sand beaches, General Kuribayashi orders an immediate halt to all the trench-digging. The beach will fall to the Americans no matter what, he argues; the battle for the island will have to be fought from under Iwo Jima. By the time the massive U.S. armada is spotted on the horizon, more than 18 miles of tunnels have been dug under Iwo's crust and throughout Mount Suribachi, the volcanic mass anchoring the island (and atop which the American flag would soon be raised). Stationed deep within Suribachi are Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a humble baker, and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a member of the infamous Kempeitai, the Gestapo-style police force whom Saigo suspects has been sent to spy on his fellow soldiers. Once Suribachi falls, however, Saigo is bound to Shimizu as they attempt to escape not just the Americans but also the rogue Japanese officer (Shido Nakamura) demanding that they suicide. While it lacks the theoretical complexity and timely importance of FLAGS, LETTERS is a significant development in the genre: No American war film, let alone one made during a time of war, ever embedded itself so deeply in the enemy camp. Even TORA! TORA! TORA! relied on Japanese filmmakers to tell the "other side" of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita based the film on Japanese source material — a cache of unsent letters found deep within the tunnels — and it's a hugely sympathetic effort that challenges the usual portrayal of Iwo's defenders as bloodthirsty fanatics. Tellingly, Eastwood offers a very different version of a FLAGS scenario in which a young Marine is yanked off the battlefield and sadistically tortured to death. Here, a seriously wounded U.S. soldier is pulled into a cave and tenderly nursed by Lt. Colonel Nishi, and the act of mercy leads to the film's strongest moment. As Nishi translates aloud the dying soldier's final letter from home, the Japanese soldiers draw closer, each hanging on every word as if it had been written by his own mother. In a magical instant, all that separates two nations at war disappears. This is sentimentality of the best kind, a touching display of male bonding amid terror and aching loneliness worthy of Howard Hawks at his finest. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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