Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

The Battle of Iwo Jima, a definitive and essential victory for the Americans in World War II.  In 2006 Clint Eastwood put out two movies related to this battle.  Flags of our Fathers was from the American side, and Letters from Iwo Jima the Japanese.  The former did more than twice as much at the box office, but this one is considered the better of the two movies.  I assume this since Letters is part of the 501 Must-See Movies and Flags is not.

Letters from Iwo Jima takes a look at the Japanese military station on the island from their preparations for the American invasion on through the battle.  About a third of the movie takes place prior to the battle, and the rest goes through the various military divisions as they fight the battle.

The film largely centers around two characters: General Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe (Inception, Batman Begins), the Japanese commander,  and Saigo, a baker-turned-soldier played by Kazunari Ninomiya.  Kuribayashi is unconventional in his tactics, oftentimes throwing Japanese tradition out the window.  This is likely because he spent time in America and had built good relationships with some American military officers.  While his loyalty is to Japan, I get the sense that he doesn’t buy into a lot of the preconceived notions about Americans that many of the rank-and-file soldiers have been taught.  He does not underestimate them and was simply trying to make the best of a bad situation, even at the expense of his own culture.

Saigo wrote many letters home to his wife, and his story traces throughout the film from losing a friend to dysentery prior to the battle to watching his entire platoon commit suicide once they knew their position was lost.  He survives to the end, and is taken prisoner by the Americans while he attempts to bury one of his commanders.  He did not ask to join the Army, and it gave new perspective in each flashback of him, whether it was his forced recruitment to the Army to his refusal to shoot a dog who barked too much.  His refusal to shoot the dog lead to his disgrace and deployment to Iwo Jima.

There was a great struggle dealing with the balance of old Japanese customs and new ways of operating in battle.  Numerous times throughout the film the hard-line traditionalists stuck to their customs.  The members of Saigo’s unit that committed suicide pulled the pin on a grenade and held it next to their body.  I found that to be incredibly disturbing, but if that’s what normal is for someone and how they’re brought up, I suppose it makes sense.

Something I really liked was the use of color in this movie.  It is given a darker tone throughout the movie, and at times everything almost has a blue/grey tone, where a few parts of the Japanese uniform are different colors.  Perhaps the filmmakers are reflecting on the inevitable defeat that many of the Japanese officers on the island  have embraced.  As they have seen and heard reinforcements either destroyed in other battles or planes being moved back to defend Japan itself, the situation becomes more and more bleak throughout.

The direct interaction with the American soldiers took place mostly at the end of the film.  An American is wounded during the battle and is given quarter until his death by the Japanese.  It was good to see this humanization, mercy, and grace on the part of the soldiers.  After the American’s death, one of the Japanese soldiers pulls out a letter his mother had written him.  It brought things down to earth for the Japanese as they realized the Americans were not all that different: they had mothers who wrote them letters, they had people at home they were fighting for.  Unfortunately the other interactions with the Americans are at the end of the film when they’re pillaging things from dead Japanese soldiers, or shooting those that were trying to surrender.

I enjoy studying history, and for me this was informative for me.  I know some about World War II and the Battle of Iwo Jima, but this both informed and brought different perspective for me.  I will probably watch Flags of Our Fathers at some point.  I felt this movie ran long, and at times dragged.  It was good that most of the film was subtitled since the main language was Japanese. It made me engage and pay attention more than with other movies.  I probably won’t watch it again, but feel enriched because I have watched it.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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