Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 1.25.07


The companion film to Flags of Our Fathers

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA: Directed by Clint Eastwood.Written by Iris Yamashita. Cinematography, Tom Stern. Music, Kyle Eastwood. Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya and Tsuyoshi Ihara. Warner Bros., 2007. R. 140 minutes.

Ken Watanabe in Letters From Iwo Jima

In his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes that combat friendships are rare because “comrades seek to lose their identities” in battle. It’s a remarkable insight into the emotional toil of war, particularly how sublimation is an act of survival. At the heart of Letters from Iwo Jima, the story of the pivotal 1945 battle from the Japanese perspective, three men — a general, a colonel and a private — find honor in the face of defeat. To say they develop friendships is misleading, although each risks his life so that others might live.

The Japanese faced overwhelming odds at Iwo Jima, a fact that Letters From Iwo Jima never lets you forget. True, of the 22,000 Japanese infantry, almost 21,000 perished. (The U.S. sent more than 100,000 troops, of which 6,000 died.) But the impression one gets while watching this film is that the U.S. has more battleships than there are men in the Imperial Army. When General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) addresses his men before battle, there can’t be more than 200 soldiers present. Toward the end, the film depicts Japan’s last survivors making a final, desperate surge, but we know that more than 1,000 Japanese soldiers survived Iwo Jima. The odds were already long, but Letters stretches them beyond all reason.

For such a minimally constructed film — note the single melody that comprises the soundtrack — that Letters manages to be so sentimental is astonishing. Whether it’s the corny bookend scenes that provide the film’s title or the incessant references to malnourishment and dysentery, Letters essentially grafts a spare, ashen look to a very bleeding heart. (The film uses filters for a matte grey appearance.) In a single scene, a beloved cavalry horse gets strafed by a U.S. fighter plane, while nearby, Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) falls for the old corpse-and-switch trick. Dating back to at least Hitchcock’s Psycho but popularized by cheap horror films, a corpse-and-switch is when a character approaches another character from behind — usually with a crude remark — only to find upon getting a better view that the character’s face is completely blown off. For example.

Granted, as a political collaboration, Letters from Iwo Jima is extraordinary. Clint Eastwood, an American icon, directed what is essentially a foreign (to Americans) film based upon a book by Gen. Kuribayashi himself. But that doesn’t make the film an artistic triumph. Therefore, praise for Letters from Iwo Jima feels politicized, even self-congratulatory. Are we to heap praise because we’re supposed to rather than because a film warrants it? I think Letters is one of the most overrated films of last year. It’s not even among the ten best films of 2006.

That’s a pity, because despite its flaws, there’s plenty to appreciate in Letters From Iwo Jima. The film is about how all soldiers — but particularly the Japanese, bound by seppuku and other warrior codes — battle themselves during combat. On the one side is the will to survive, to see family and friends again; on the other, a culture that esteems suicide over defeat. Die, you’re a hero. Live, you’re a coward. What one takes away from Letters From Iwo Jima — again, in heaping doses — is that all of us are equally savage for the wars we pursue, equally stricken by the horrors of combat. The historical portrayal of Japanese soldiers as pitiless and vengeful fighting machines was, in the end, one of the many stories we told each other to live with ourselves at night.   


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