Saturday, November 20, 2010


When my father (who fought on the island) would tell us about the Battle of Iwo Jima, he almost always mentioned the tunnels that the Japanese dug through Mount Surabachi and the remainder of the small island.  The tunnels totaled up to being around eighteen miles long.  It’s unfortunate that Director Clint Eastwood does not devote more of his movie, Letters from Iwo Jima, to this undertaking.  I’m not referring to the engineering expertise that was required, though that would be interesting to scholars.  It’s the fanaticism required to accomplish something like this and the almost religious devotion of the Japanese soldiers to make these tunnels the location of their final fight that’s captivating.  General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), leader of the Japanese troops on the island and the person primarily responsible for the supervision of the digging of these tunnels, could not during modern times have accomplished what he did without having the Japanese soldier as an expendable resource.  Eastwood, of course, does not tell us that.  In his movie, General Kuribayashi is portrayed as a humane and decent man, concerned in every respect about the well-being and the safety of the soldiers who served under him.  And, judging only from his letters found after his death, this may have been true.  Unfortunately, with his loyalty to Emperor Hirohito, his likely devotion to Shintoism (and the ancestor worship that necessarily comes along with it), and his overwhelming love of his homeland in which he hoped to protect by waging an all out battle at Iwo Jima, the well-being of his soldiers may have not been a high priority.

The title, Letters from Iwo Jima, relates to the letters that Kuribayashi and Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) write to their loved ones.  Most of the letters were never sent and only found close to sixty years later in a box buried in one of the caves on the island.  The letters often concern mundane events such as the kitchen floor that needs to be fixed, the longings for home life, etc.  We also are given a series of flashbacks to help fill in some of the gaps.  At one point, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic athlete who participated in the equestrian events in the 1932 games in Los Angeles and who understands English, reads out loud to the men in his charge a letter that was written by an American mother to her American son who died in the Japanese soldiers’ presence.  The soldiers are struck by how similar the letter is to ones that were written by their own mothers.  The point Eastwood is making with the reading of these letters is that the Japanese and American soldiers were very much alike.
There are of course some incredibly sad scenes in this film.  A Japanese baker, Saigo, is separated from his pregnant wife and she justifiably fears she will never see him again.  Baron Nishi, loses his prized horse in the first bombing raid by American fighters on the island.  Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a member of the Kempeitai (the military police), was demoted to the infantry and sent to Iwo Jima because he disobeyed orders in not shooting a family dog.  A number of Japanese soldiers commit suicide by blowing themselves up with grenades.  Kuribayashi, himself, commits suicide on the island with a revolver he received as a present earlier on a visit to America.  He kills himself after he’s been wounded and it’s obvious that the battle has been lost.  Atrocities are committed by both sides, but then so are acts of kindness.  (Unfortunately, one scene depicts an American soldier killing two Japanese prisoners without any explanation and with such complete crassness that some viewers felt cheated by the moviemakers' manipulations.)  Eastwood bends so far over backwards to underplay the differences between the two people (at least as far as soldiers are concerned) that we almost fail to understand why these same soldiers seemed so determined to fight this particular battle to the death. 
Please keep in mind that with a battle of this magnitude nothing is simple.  The letters in this movie are used as a dramatic device to drive home a point that may not be entirely true.  Love for one’s wife does not mean that the individual in question is incapable of atrocities.  We mostly hear only sentimental sputtering concerning what is being written home.  What is acted out on the battlefront might be entirely different.  Eastwood makes the mistake in Letters from Iwo Jima of attributing to people of another nation a number of western attributes.  The movie tells us almost nothing about the significance of Japanese culture outside of the Japanese soldiers’ tendency to commit suicide, nor what made each individual Japanese soldier such a significant foe.  Only a little over 1,000 Japanese soldiers actually survived the Battle of Iwo Jima, and that was not because of America’s unwillingness to take any prisoners.  The Japanese culture, regardless of the great technological advances made in their society since Commodore Perry’s arrival had forced them out of isolationism in the 1850s, was still one that was totally alien to the American people.  There was a pride within the Japanese people regarding its apartness.  This is not to say that American culture was superior to that of Japan.  It was just startlingly different.  The existence of Japan dates back to 660 BC, and Shintoism (though not necessarily by name), Buddhism and even Confucianism existed long before the birth of Christ.  Currently, it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.  In many ways the Japanese language is much more complex than English, yet virtually 100 percent of the citizens are literate and well educated.  Self-improvement and perfectionism are desired qualities, and failure brings along with it great personal shame.  Loyalty and militarism existed in Japan many centuries before the United States even became a nation.  During World War II, dying for the Emperor contained a great deal more significance than say dying for the President.  Hirohito would have been an ordinary man to most of us if not for the religious significance given to him by every Japanese soul.  This resulted in America fighting the type of enemy it had never before seen, but in one important respect we are seeing again in the Middle East.  Nearly sixty years before 9/11, the Japanese were already using the airplane as a suicide weapon.
The United States has long (and often justly) been accused of interfering with the affairs of other nations.  However, despite Japan’s right to its own national identity, when Japan entered Manchuria in 1937 and murdered nearly 300,000 civilians in Nanking, the Japanese people - and not just its leaders - could no longer claim its separateness from the rest of the world.  It was Japan’s own imperial tendency and desire to force its ways upon others that brought war to the Pacific.    Eastwood, by making the claim that there are notable similarities between the American and Japanese soldier, also makes light of the other surrounding circumstances of this war.  That all war is bad is probably a correct proposition.  That all war can be avoided is another matter.
Clint Eastwood is trying to play the role of historian with this movie.  I will probably be accused of nitpicking when I examine the historical accuracies of the film, but I see no reason to keep the standards any lower just because it’s “only” a movie.  If people do not want to think, there are thousands of other movies that can help them do just that.  I understand that some artistic license must be taken in the movie because we can only reflect what happened up to a certain degree, and some people, depending completely on their preconceptions, simply think that historical accuracy is not important in storytelling. For these individuals, all I can say is: “Just as there are plenty of stupid movies to watch, there is also plenty of propaganda that is more entertaining than this movie.”  What’s more, both moviemakers and critics seem to like to have it both ways by placing particular historical significance on one event while downplaying the rest.  Here, for example, they would like to say that the difference between the Japanese and Americans is insignificant as shown by the letters - while shying away from any fact that would say otherwise.  Viewers are drawn to this movie largely because it does involve an historical event, and also because this movie is making a statement that is dependent on the accurate depiction of that historical event.
Eastwood comes dangerously close to romanticizing what occurred on the island.  Letters from Iwo Jima would have us assume that Kuribayashi, so popular with his own soldiers, was not well respected or liked by the Japanese leadership.  In fact, Kuribayashi was assigned command at Iwo Jima by General Tojo, himself, the notorious minister of war who was later executed for war crimes.  That Japanese leadership could be so divisive at Iwo Jima, as portrayed in the movie, and yet the Japanese were nevertheless so effective at producing American casualties (American dead or wounded exceeded 26,000 men) does not seem credible. This commander, who in his letters exuded great tenderness to his wife, was the same person who commanded that his men fight to the death.  It’s incongruous to me that Kuribayashi, who was so utterly disturbed by his officers and soldiers committing ritual suicide, never simply surrendered to save thousands of Japanese soldiers’ lives.  Kuribayashi was undoubtedly a great strategist.  His ordering of the tunnel system allowed the Japanese soldiers to hold off the Americans after nearly two months of bombings and thirty-five days of actual combat.  However, this also doomed hundreds of his men to dying in the caves because of allied flamethrowers.
Obviously, Kuribayashi loved his homeland greatly and believed in his mission because he had to know that he would not outlive the battle.  The reason given for why he took on this mission (and one that may be true) was that he wished to divert the American soldiers as much as possible from invading his homeland.  And maybe and quite probably the 20,000 Japanese soldiers who died at Iwo Jima felt much the same thing.  This to me is a fascinating part of the story that Eastwood fails to tell.  With only a few exceptions (like Lieutenant Ito played by Shido Nakamura who seeks out his own death by wandering around the island with a hand grenade), we can never quite believe from watching the movie that the soldiers could be as devoted to their cause as the officers.  If this lack of belief in their mission on the part of the Japanese soldier had really been the case, the defense of the island would not have lasted more than a few days.
Clint Eastwood assigned Paul Haggis of Crash to put together the screenplay for this movie and, like Crash, I could detect the same obviousness in the delivery of the message.  The moral is so transparent that it’s almost impossible to miss.  To Eastwood, both in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, victory or defeat by either side was of little importance.  In fact, the Battle of Iwo Jima had barely any significance to him in these movies outside of two great world powers allowing their men to be slaughtered.   But if Eastwood wants us to care for the men who died and make us believe that the soldiers on both sides shared the same nobility, he needs to show that these men were more than one-dimensional characters.  This he failed to do.  In Kuribayashi and Saigo, we see only gentleness and forlorn emotion.   In Ito and many of the Japanese officers, we see little more than murderous dispositions.  The same is true for the few glimpses we get of the Americans.
It appears now that Clint Eastwood intends on playing it safe and, like the prodigal son, is being welcomed back to the fold.  No more spaghetti westerns or vigilante justice for him.  From now on out, expect only intelligent and sedate dramas from this director.  Letters from Iwo Jima tells a respectful and satisfying (which is not the same as commanding) story about the similarities of the Japanese and American soldiers.  It almost never condescends to the viewer and it presents an important proposition to the viewer (that even our enemy can be authentic human beings) in a well thought out if incomplete manner.  The movie seldom makes the viewer feel any anger or joy or laughter or distress because much of the emotion is evoked only by recollections of an older and better time.  As much as the movie shows that both sides are affected adversely by the war, I never believe by what is shown in the movie that the war in itself is inherently bad.  That’s because we never see much of what was truly going on with this battle.  Too much is left out and this gives Eastwood’s honorable message much less of a punch.  We never get the feeling that 20,000 Japanese and 4,000 Americans actually die in the course of the fighting.  We only get the impression that we are being told what to think.

February 20, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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