The Scoop: 2006 R, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, andTsuyoshi Ihara
Summary Capsule: The Japanese prepare for the battle of Iwo Jima.
Lissa’s Rating: Bet those letters didn’t ask Santa for a pony.
Lissa’s Review: And so, we continue on through Lissa’s foray into recent World War II movies. Letters from Iwo Jima is a companion movie to Flags of Our Fathers, and as advertised, this is a companion review.
Flags of Our Fathers focused on the Battle of Iwo Jima from the American perspective, and the aftermath of the famous flag-raising photograph. In contrast, Letters from Iwo Jima focused not only on the battle from the Japanese perspective, but on the Japanese preparations for the battle. Instead of the three surviving flag-raisers, the focus on was on the general, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), and soldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya, who will convince you that some boy band singers can actually act). As in Flags of Our Fathers, acting was excellent, effects, sets, authenticity as far as I can tell… all wonderful.
While Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are companion pieces, they both stand extremely well on their own. In fact, I would easily say you don’t have to watch one to understand the other. And I’d go so far as to say if you do watch only one, watch Letters from Iwo Jima. I really thought it was the superior movie, and for once, the Academy got it right in nominating Letters over Flags.
I remember when Pearl Harbor came out, how Michael Bay made a whole lot of noise about being sympathetic to the Japanese perspective on the war. No, not really. He simply avoided putting fangs on them and gave the head honcho some Mr. Miyagi type lines to say. Oh, yeah, that’s real sympathetic. Pfft. Now, Letters from Iwo Jima is not sympathetic to the Japanese perspective, either. That would be a very patronizing thing to say. From what I can tell (from my admittedly extremely limited knowledge of history), Letters from Iwo Jima IS the Japanese perspective on the war. There’s a difference. Letters from Iwo Jima didn’t say, “oh, the Japanese are human, too!” Instead, it explored the Japanese culture and belief system and how it impacted the way these men lived and thought, and how it eventually contributed to the loss of the battle (I’ll say more about that in a minute). Letters from Iwo Jima is an intelligent, thoughtful film that is dedicated to its story and characters, and I think that’s part of what made it such a strong film. Not that Flags of Our Fathers wasn’t intelligent and thoughtful (it was), but I think it lost a little dedication to the story in showing the violence of war. Yes, people, Letters from Iwo Jima is far less gory.
I found it interesting that the film focused on two characters at the opposite extremes of rank in the army. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was a real person, and the movie is largely based on his book Picture Letters from Commander in Chief. General Kuribayashi, who spent pre-war time in America, is charged with keeping the island at all costs. Not necessarily a striking order for someone that high up. But Kuribayashi tries to institute some different techniques of fighting, and a lot of these techniques go against the Japanese code of honor. One can see where Kuribayashi’s ideas are good — very good, in fact — but at the same time, they go against what many of the military men believe deep in the core of their souls. Kuribayashi is not just asking them to change tactics, but to change belief structures, and the clash ultimately contributes to the Japanese loss in the battle. (Of course, the nutrition and sanitation aspects, the fact the American soldiers outnumbered the Japanese, and the lack of any other military support all contributed as well.)
Saigo, on the other hand, is a fictional grunt. Drafted into the Japanese army (in a flashback scene that’s quite poignant), Saigo has previously lived the life of a baker. The ideas of death before defeat are ideas he thinks he believes in until he’s called to actually practice that. I think that Saigo’s dilemma and desire (to survive the war and go home to his family) is one that many people can understand. Additionally, I could see where Saigo might not embrace “death before defeat” as fully as the men who made a career out of the military did, just because of the way he entered the army. There’s a very intense scene where several of the men are suiciding, and watching their reactions to their own actions is very interesting, even as it keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Because Letters from Iwo Jima focused on the Japanese in the battle and their preparation, I felt like this was new territory in a war film. I’m sure it’s not, but it was very different from most anything I’d ever seen, particularly because of the integration of cultural ideals and expectations. And yet, although I found myself invested in the characters, it was interesting to still find myself “rooting” for the Americans. I do think that both movies did a very good job of not expressly villainizing either nationality, but showing how war could affect people and the range of human emotion and reaction to situations like this.
While I’ve been saying for most of this review that I liked Letters from Iwo Jima better than Flags of Our Fathers, I still recommend watching both of them. While watching one isn’t necessary for watching the other, the two pieces do complement each other very well and unfold to tell a full story. I also recommend watching them in the order we did and the order they were released: Flags of Our Fathers first and then Letters from Iwo Jima. Partly this is because of the background Flags of Our Fathers managed to give, but also a few events that took place in Flags of Our Fathers are then seen again from the other side in Letters from Iwo Jima, and one question in particular is somewhat answered. Both are well worth watching, even if I did think this one was better.
- The only cast member to be in both films appears in the flame throwing image of Chuck Lindberg (played by Allasandro Maestrobuono). He advances on a bunker with a flamethrower. Individual members of the casts of both films have met, though never officially presented together, as there are commonalities between the casts in the acting community.
- The story of Lt. Ito strapping mines to himself and lying among corpses to attack a tank is based on the real-life story of Satoru Omagiri, as told in The Rising Sun by John Toland.
- Kazunari Ninomiya, who played Saigo (and very well, I might add), is a part of the Japanese pop boy-band, Arashi.
- That’s not really Iwo Jima? (No, I didn’t notice it either. But I always have a hard time filling this part. It’s Iceland or California, at least, where all the battle footage was shot.)
- Sulfur Island. That’s what Iwo Jima means, I believe.
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi: I am determined to serve and give my life for my country.
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi: If our children can live safely for one more day it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island.
Saigo: We can die here, or we can continue fighting. Which would better serve the emperor?
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi: I will always be in front of you.
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi: For our homeland. Until the very last man. Our duty is to stop the enemy right here. Do not expect to return home alive.
Baron Nishi: Do what is right because it’s right.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Flags of Our Fathers
- Tora! Tora! Tora!
- Any war movie BUT Pearl Harbor