Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Bando

MPAA Rating:   (for graphic war violence)

Running Time: 2:22

Release Date: 12/20/06 (limited); 1/12/07 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Clint Eastwood's one-two punch of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima is an ambitious attempt to flesh out one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. While Flags of Our Fathers is a superbly photographed recreation from the American perspective of the battle and the story of the famous flag-raisers on Mt. Suribachi, Letters from Iwo Jima tells the Japanese side of the battle. The film has a lesser scope of story than its predecessor, but in its minimal approach, it far surpasses its companion's emotional scope. While Eastwood's Iwo Jima films combined give an overall vision of the battle, this film stands apart and on its own as multifaceted view of men in combat—the boredom, the terror, the tragic and comic sometimes absurdly intermingled. Since the film focuses on the Japanese soldier's participation in WWII—based on a bastardized version of the old samurai's way of Bushido instilled from a young age, in which death comes before any form of dishonor—it also attempts to demystify the apparent insanity of banzai charges and mass suicides, torture and executions. The film's thematic center is no less than the human experience when faced with imminent, inescapable death, and the fact that, despite cultural boundaries and international conflict, there are universal truths to our existence as human beings.

The film opens at Iwo Jima in 2005. From the beach, the camera pans up to Suribachi. There a memorial has been established for the Japanese soldiers. Old, rusted artillery and tanks and abandoned bunkers and tunnels still remain. In a scene that serves as bookends to the film, a group of researchers is exploring the island for artifacts from the battle. From there, the film goes to the island in 1944. Soldiers are digging trenches on the beach. In a narration, we hear the words of a letter from Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), one of those 22,000 men, to his wife. He wonders if he is digging his own grave. In the sky, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is about to arrive on the island. He has also written to his wife, apologizing for not finishing the kitchen floor before leaving. Upon arriving on the island, Kuribayashi saves Saigo from a whipping for suggesting that the Americans can take the hot, sulfur-smelling island, orders the soldiers to stop digging trenches on the beach, and decides to walk the island instead of being driven around it. As Kuribayashi begins to have his men build an elaborate tunnel system throughout the island, he begins to realize this defense, isolated and without any support, is a suicide mission.

The voice-overs are vital, as Eastwood focuses on the idea of lives interrupted. Amidst the viciousness and inhumanity of war, there are men with families, hopes, and fear—making the atrocities worse, and the losses pointless. Kuribayashi's mention of the kitchen floor might seem ordinary, but the loss of the normal, the commonplace is the drive of the film. In a flashback to his home life, we see the newly married Saigo preparing for dinner with his pregnant wife (Nae) when the army announces his drafting. "Congratulations!  Your husband is going to war," intones their neighbor. The resulting scene between husband and wife is wrenching. Slightly less effectively placed but necessary for developing the general are scenes of Kuribayashi in pre-war America. "The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight," he tells his new American friends. Also present for the battle is a national hero, the Olympic Gold Medalist Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who brings his own horse to the island. Nishi's past success emphasizes the lack of future ones, and he also serves as translator for a captured Marine whom he attempts to save. He reads a letter from the troop's mother to his men, and they recognize the words as the same as their own mothers'.

The battle itself, then, has an entirely somber tone. Filmed in near black-and-white by cinematographer Tom Stern, the battle scenes never nearly approach a glorifying look at war and instead concentrate on the inhuman as much as the personal scenes with Kuribayashi, Saigo, and Nishi center on the human. There are atrocities on both sides: An American troop is taken into the tunnels and stabbed multiple times; two unarmed Japanese soldiers who surrendered of their own free will are executed so the American soldiers keeping watch over them can go about their business. Heroes are practically nonexistent here, as Kuribayashi's commanders disobey his orders to fall back to solidify the northern defenses so they and their men can kill themselves with honor. In the film's most horrifying scene, a group of soldiers commit suicide by grenade, one by one. In a powerful piece of shorthanded storytelling, one of them holds a picture of his family, weeping, trembling as he awaits his turn. It is physically painful to watch. Later, potential deserters are shot on sight. The suggestion that the Japanese could have held their defense longer if not for this needless suicidal urge is inescapable. 

That mentality is taken to almost comic effect as Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura) straps a mine to himself and waits to take out a tank with him—staring at the sky, waiting. If Ito and his like-minded commanders' insane desire to die honorably is our common impression of our former enemy, screenwriter Iris Yamashita puts forth Kuribayashi and Saigo as our entryway. Kuribayashi's approach to the battle—for each of his men to kill ten American troops before dying—is one of necessity. His reasoning for the fight is simple: So his country's children can live safely for one more day. In the last days of the battle, he hears a children's choir from the mainland singing for his soldiers. Saigo's battle is personal; he intends to survive to fulfill a promise made to his unborn son: "Your dad is going to come home for you." Kazunari Ninomiya is instantly sympathetic as the young Saigo, and Ken Watanabe's dominating screen presence is of utmost importance as Kuribayashi. He gives a performance of quiet ferocity and surprising compassion.

One of Eastwood's primary strengths as a director is his humanity, and it is in full force here. This is a story that has been ignored by the West for too long. Some may decry the downplaying of atrocities done by the Japanese during the war. That is not the point of this film; that is part of the story of Flags of Our Fathers. With Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood has made one of the select genuine, anti-war films.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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