A famous U.S. war propaganda film from 1945 depicted Japanese soldiers as a relentless mass of people with identical faces and a singular purpose. Called “Know Your Enemy- Japan,” it was directed by Frank Capra (“It’s A Wonderful Life”) and was withdrawn quickly when the fighting in the Pacific ceased. This opinion of the Japanese was widely held at the time by most Americans, and came more from an ignorance of Japanese culture and a need to demonize a wartime combatant than anything else.
Now, another beloved U.S. movie director is showing the opposite perspective, as Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” spotlights some of the 21,000 Japanese men who lost their lives defending the key island from some 110, 000 American invaders. What’s amazing about this feat is that the film’s release follows Eastwood’s own U.S.-focused Iwo Jima movie “Flags of Our Fathers” by a mere three months. Where “Flags” examined the ‘hero’ symbol—it’s purpose and effect—”Letters” is a straight up, good old fashioned anti-war film.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” may be almost completely in Japanese with subtitles, but it still comes from a traditional style of American filmmaking. The contemplative pacing may be the only similarity between this and the movies of Japanese masters like Akira Kurasawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Yet Eastwood succeeds at getting a convincing, unforced feeling of duty and honor from his actors. That goes a long way towards explaining how the Japanese army took on what amounted to a suicide mission in the first place.
Ken Watanabe is the stoic General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, whose letters to his family back home comprise at least part of the basis for a screenplay by Iris Yamashita. Faced with the unwinnable prospect of defending the island against overwhelming odds, Kuribayashi orders his troops to dig in, hollowing out miles of tunnels and caves. The man spent two years as a military attaché in America, and was quoted as saying, “The U.S. is the last country in the world we should fight.”
This dichotomy between loyalty to the Japanese empire and respect for his enemy forms the heart of “Letter From Iwo Jima.” This is brought out most successfully in conversations between the General and equestrian Olympian Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who was a medal winner in the 1932 Los Angeles games. Both men bond over the simple pleasures of riding and caring for horses, and have deep conversations about nature and family. They are aristocratic men of a dying breed, and are on the island to serve the country that has given them these opportunities.
Some portrayals seem fairly Americanized, like Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker who quite unwillingly leaves his expecting wife at home to join the military. Saigo has more in common with Adam Sandler than he does with his noble higher-ups, as jokes around and complains out loud about digging massive amounts of tunnels. Because they were far outnumbered, Kuribayashi’s strategy of literally ‘digging in’ proved a brilliant one, but the American forces were just too many for the Japanese to have a chance.
Most of the film takes place in these caves, as the Japanese struggle to resolve their strict allegiance with the fact that they will most certainly perish in the ensuing battle. Their country has given the commanders orders to hold the island no matter the cost. There are far less spectacularly mounted battle scenes than “Flags of Our Fathers,” but one shot in particular illustrates the immense magnitude of war. After days of constant bombing by the Americans, Saigo is forced outside the caves to dump the latrine bucket when the sight of thousands of U.S. warships converging on the shores causes him to literally lose his shit.
“Letters From Iwo Jima” resonates with the best ‘anti-war’ war films because it questions the nobility of dying for a cause by holding up a mirror to ourselves. There is no doubt that the Japanese men who died defending the island died noble deaths as defined by their country. But when we can recognize so much of ourselves in the enemy, their idea of this brand of loyalty seems even more foreign. When one regiment fails to hold their position, Kuribayashi orders them to retreat. Their immediate commanding officer, however, announces that they have failed in their mission and must commit suicide, as is the tradition. To both Saigo and the audience, the choice is obvious.
If “Flags of Our Fathers” deconstructed the myth of the ‘hero,’ then “Letters From Iwo Jima” only deepens our understanding of what is truly at stake when countries go to war. All of the the Japanese soldiers, including many who thought the war was a bad idea, fought bravely for a country that knew they would perish in the battle. Rather than one relentless mass, the Japanese are individuals just like us. Their culture may be different, but their humanity looks very familiar.