Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima, the second side of Clint Eastwood’s look at the famous Pacific struggle from World War II, was rushed for a 2006 release when it became apparent that the American side, Flags of our Fathers, was not generating the Oscar buzz necessary for a nomination. The strategy worked, for once again Clint has a candidate for Best Picture. I would have to say that the Academy got it right this time. Flags deserved to be left off, and Iwo Jima deserved the nod. In fact, I might have to call it my favorite movie of the year.

The principle action of Iwo Jima occurs entirely on the small island with a number of flashbacks from the lives of the characters. It begins right before General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe, arrives to assume responsibility for the island’s defense. Already there is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a sensitive conscript with a wife and child and whose goal is simply to make it home alive.

General Kuribayashi, who has been influenced by a stay in the United States, re-conceives the defense of the island against the traditional strategy employed up to that point. He orders his men to dig a series of tunnels into the depths of Mt. Suribachi. It is a doomed defense, as the Japanese forces are far inferior both in number and weaponry, but Kuribayashi tells his men that it is worth it to die defending the island if it means one more day of freedom for their loved ones back home.

Like Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima is strong in the technical aspects. It has the same production values, the editing and camera use are perfectly competent and the actors are well cast. But Iwo Jima scores far higher in the artistic aspects than does its counterpart. The story moves well and never disorients. Several different characters are well sketched, well acted and interest us enough to engage our sympathy and make us care what happens to them.

It is heartening to see such good work put into the film, because the central idea itself deserves a skilled realization. A smaller army awaits a giant behemoth as it digs in on an island it knows it cannot defend for long. The characters think back on their lives as they await what will almost certainly be death for all of them. Finally, when the overwhelming US forces arrive, Saigo and his fellows must confront their own rigid traditions: do they commit suicide in shame when they lose their posts to the unstoppable foe, or do they play it smart and fight on, retreating again and again to an ever shrinking zone that they still control?

Mr. Eastwood continues his straight and, I think, honest moviemaking with the second part of his project on the Battle of Iwo Jima. The Japanese are portrayed in a sincere manner, both in recognition of their strict tradition which some might find horrible and in the realization that they were no more a unified group of clones than the Americans were. There are traditionally brutal and inhumane Japanese soldiers just as there are those who would eschew such appalling cruelty and waste of life. Though it may cause some polemics, I do not believe it sets out to do anything other than to remember and to entertain. I think it has done both things quite nicely.

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