Review Letters from Iwo Jima
By Brett McCracken
January 29, 2007
It is a rare and beautiful thing to have two pieces of art that explore one single event or idea from two such vastly different—but ultimately complimentary—points of view. Literature has typically been the medium for this sort of multi-perspectival landscape, though modern film has toyed with the form many times in recent years (Magnolia, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, basically any Robert Altman film). Still, what Clint Eastwood has done in 2006 is completely unprecedented. His two films about WWII’s Battle of Iwo Jima (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) are both strong on their own terms, but together they form an achievement of cinema as formidable as anything since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Flags of Our Fathers, based on the James Bradley novel, told the story of American soldiers who lifted the flag at Iwo Jima and became the poster boys for “American wartime valor,” a concept they all struggled to live up to. Letters from Iwo Jima tells of similar struggles from the Japanese perspective. Together the pair of films explores, through a gorgeous, ying-yang connectedness, the tensions between micro, spiritual existence and macro, war-machine madness.
Whereas most of Flags took place after the battle itself, most of Letters occurs in the months leading up to the 1945 fight on Iwo Jima. As 22,000 Japanese soldiers amass on the strategic Pacific island for a final stand against an inevitable American invasion (of about 100,000 troops), we get a cross-sectional look inside the souls of these men at war. General Kuribayashi, portrayed with graceful restraint by Ken Watanabe, is dealt the unfortunate task of leading what is widely felt to be a lost cause in the stand on Iwo Jima, yet he retains his authority and will amid constant pressures from strategy-happy subordinates and dejected foot soldiers. He is a towering figure of military leadership at its most star-crossed-yet-elegant best. Similar in character countenance is another high-ranking officer, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian star and inspirational celebrity to the Japanese troops. Nishi amuses his comrades by riding his prize-winning horse around camp (some of the film’s most jarring images involve the horse) and by recalling tales of Hollywood hobnobbing with the likes of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Kuribayashi and Nishi’s characters (who both spent plenty of time, and have many friends, in the U.S.) remind us of the unnatural inhumanity of reducing individuals to expendable fighting numbers in abstract global struggles.
In contrast to these two gallant, ranking officials, Letters’ other main characters represent the rank-and-file conscripts who are thrust into these dire conditions with an all too keen understanding of their own expendability. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is a young husband and father whose sole desire is to survive and return to his family. Shimizu (Ryo Kase) an ex-Kempeitai military policeman (kicked out for refusing to shoot a dog) who befriends Saigo on the battlefield. Together they come to realize that perhaps fighting for each other—for life—is in the end more honorable than fighting to the death against a foe on the cusp of total victory.
And this is the theme that pervades Letters, as well as Flags: when is death (and in a larger sense, violence) honorable? It is a question that has come up in other places in recent cinema, like in United 93, which pit terrorists’ notions about jihad honor against western values of life at all costs. A similar tension is played out in the eastern vs. western belief systems at work in Letters and Flags. The Americans in Flags, for example, do not take pride in their fallen comrade “heroes” on the battlefield, but rather question the notion. Death for them—even for a larger goal—is nothing to rejoice in. The Japanese, on the other hand, find it dishonorable and even pathetic for a soldier to walk off the battlefield in one piece (at worst, as a P.O.W.). Death is the highest triumph for them. We see this in one of Letters’ most intense scenes, in which a group of hopeless soldiers take death in their own hands—in the form of a grenade clasped to the chest. “Banzai!” they yell as they blow themselves up for their country.
But notions of death and country are not as black and white in these films as the above paragraph insinuates. Nothing ever is in a Clint Eastwood film. The director, who often shrouds his characters in shadowy frames of both light and dark, is an artist of the grays. His films re-focus old notions, debunk classic structures and remind us that this world is too complex to reduce to soundbites or Hollywood endings; too complex even to let one film have the final word on something so iconic as Iwo Jima (and all that Iwo Jima represents).
Before the Flags/Letters duo, Eastwood’s last film was Million Dollar Baby, a film that also, interestingly, dealt with the question of dying with honor. Many pro-life advocates attacked Eastwood and Baby for promoting a “culture of death,” because (spoiler alert) the main character insists on being euthanized (or rather, kills herself through the hands of another). I wonder if those same critics will attack Letters for depicting protagonists who kill themselves, and, at times, who ask others to do the job for them?
Clint Eastwood, through the film cycle of Flags and Letters, is taking our “pro-life” notions and throwing them in our face—asking us if we really do value life as much as we claim. These films are all about men—live, breathing, family men—who are dying in droves like cattle to the slaughter. In the case of Letters, the Japanese soldiers are dying for an aim that is absolutely, knowingly futile. The Americans were dying for something more (at least from their perspective), but still, dying. When is death justified? When is it honorable? Is a pro-war stance really pro-life? These are all important and timely questions Eastwood is raising. Without getting too political, can we not ask ourselves—especially as Christians—whether the killing of unborn babies is substantively different than the weekly slaughter of hundreds and hundreds of people in Iraq? Whether good guys or bad, overthrown dictators or coma-ridden cripple people, when is the extinction of human life a good thing?
Ultimately, Eastwood’s films do not provide easy answers. What they do offer, generously and provocatively, is a reminder that there is always more than one way to look at something.