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LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
Directed by Clint Eastwood (2006)140 minutes
During World War II, Japanese were characterized in the media as sneaky and fanatical, almost sub-human and many had a hard time adjusting to our being allies after the war. Clint Eastwoods Letters From Iwo Jima seeks to balance the equation. Adapted from a book of letters from Japanese soldiers found on Iwo Jima, the film takes place in 1944 during the fight for the island that was deemed strategic for both sides, a fight that ended with 21,000 Japanese and 6,000 American casualties. Spoken in Japanese with English subtitles, the film, a companion piece to Flags Of Our Fathers, dramatizes the battle from the Japanese point of view. Eastwood asks us to suspend our judgments and our knowledge of Japanese atrocities in China and the Philippines and look at the bravery and nobility of Japanese soldiers fighting against insurmountable odds.
They are depicted as soldiers who loved their families but were victims of Japanese militarism, forced to adhere to the Bushido code of serving the Emperor by dying honorably rather than preserving ones life. Throughout the film, the Japanese soldiers write letters home, most of which they know will never reach their destination. The hero of the film is Commander Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), an American trained Japanese General who was outnumbered by a ratio of five-to-one yet fought off the US invasion for over a month without air or naval support. He is portrayed as a warrior with dignity and courage who was called an American sympathizer by some officers but who only wanted to give his men a fighting chance.
Assisting in the preparations for an expected American invasion, are Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamur). Ito is a fanatical warrior who wears landmines around his shoulders and vows to destroy an American tank by pretending to be a corpse. Kuribayashi, countermanding the order to build trenches on the beach to resist the invasion, orders the soldiers to build underground tunnels in the hard rocks. While knowing the battle is a lost cause because of the American advantage in technology and numbers, he hopes to inflict enough casualties on the American troops that they will lose the will to go on.
We get to know Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a Japanese soldier who left his job as a baker and his pregnant wife to join the military. In a flashback, Saigo learns that he is called to serve and is unwilling to leave his wife and their unborn child, but, encouraged by his neighbors, is forced to surrender to the idea of it being a privilege to fight. He stands out as a soldier who values life more than an outmoded code of honor. After a day of shoveling trenches, he writes to his wife, "Am I digging my own grave?" and wonders why he should die trying to kill Americans.
Shown in a faded color palette that is almost black and white, Letters From Iwo Jima is a beautifully executed film, though I did find it a bit overlong and the battle scenes repetitious. Additionally, the film may go a bit too far in its attempt to show fairness to both sides, idealizing Kuribayashi and Nishi and inventing an incident in which American soldiers left in charge of two Japanese soldiers who surrendered, ruthlessly shoot them to death rather than stand guard all night. Despite its flaws, however, Letters From Iwo Jima serves as a powerful reminder of our common humanity and makes clear the insanity of war and how it corrupts everyone involved.