Thursday, May 29, 2014

Can't Send No Postcards

Film: Letters from Iwo Jima
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I consider myself a fan of Ken Watanabe for the same reason that I’m a fan of people like Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and David Gulpilil: they all have gravitas. There is a presence that each of them (and many others) bring to every role they undertake. When Watanabe is on screen, I want to watch him. Letters from Iwo Jima may not be my favorite of his films (I have a soft spot for Tampopo), but it might be his most impressive role.

As the name of the film implies, this is a war film. What makes it particularly unusual is that despite its being directed by Clint Eastwood, most of the film is in Japanese. This is, after all, the Japanese side of the battle for Iwo Jima. The Japanese lost this battle, with both sides taking horrific casualties. That known going in, this was never going to be a fun romp in the park.

We start in the modern day with a group of Japanese archaeologists digging through the caves and tunnels on the island. One of them discovers something, and as they begin digging it up, we move back in time to 1944 and the Japanese preparations for the inevitable American invasion of the island fortress. The new commander of the island, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives and witnesses one of his underlings beating a couple of his soldiers for a lack of patriotism. One of these soldiers is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who we will be following for the bulk of the film.

There is a certain understanding here that virtually everyone on the Japanese side will not be leaving the island alive. The Japanese soldiers know this, and so do we in the audience. There is an air of fatalism surrounding everything that happens because of this. Because of this, it makes a certain sense not to become too attached to any of the characters because once the battle starts, they will start dropping like flies. Unfortunately for us in the audience, the entire point of Letters from Iwo Jima is to humanize the Japanese soldiers and show that unlike the way they are depicted in the more jingoistic war films of previous decades, these are just people fulfilling their duty as best they can. We come to know several of the men fairly well in addition to Saigo and Kuribayashi. Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), for instance, we learn was an Olympic medalist and is something of a celebrity. Shimizu (Ryo Kase) is suspected of being a member of the Japanese military police, but eventually admits to being dishonorably discharged from that service. Ito (Shido Nakamura) is insanely patriotic to the point of abusing his men for not living up to his standards of rabid nationalism. And as the film progresses, this men are slowly but surely picked off, killed, horribly injured, mangled or commit suicide to protect their own honor.

For me, it’s the fatalism and acceptance of death that is the most fascinating aspect of the film. Certainly a good many of the American troops contained within them this same sort of fatalism and many committed self-sacrificing acts of heroism and bravery. But here, we’re exposed to a culture that demanded such opinions from everyone. These men have been raised in a culture that promotes self-sacrifice on the battlefield as an ideal, and even suggests that suicide is preferable to capture or failure, something that his horribly and terribly shown to us in one scene as an entire squad of troops kills itself off one by one with hand grenades.

The most striking thing about the film is the color palate. While in color, it almost isn’t. There’s a washed-out, monochromatic look to everything here, almost as if it has been filmed in sepia. There are flashes of color here and there, particularly blood, but even this seems muted in a way. Most of the actual color appears in brief flashbacks we get as insight into the different characters. These are mainly effective because of their brevity. They are short, pointed vignettes that give us particular details about the character in question, giving us a little more about a given character and why he thinks the way he does.

One of the strongest things going for the film is not the presence of Watanabe, but the performance of Kazunari Ninomiya. While the culture of the film is naturally foreign to the vast majority of its intended audience (read: American, or at least Western), Saigo is a character who is immediately likable. There’s something of the goof in him, a man suddenly caught up desperately over his head and wanting only to survive, and doing his best to interpret his orders and his duty in a way that will let him live with some honor. He, like many of the characters, is someone we want to see live because he becomes a real person for us rather than simply a faceless enemy. And it’s subtle. I, at least, didn’t realize exactly how much I had come to like Saigo as a character until I realized how close to mortal danger he was just before the 1-hour mark.

It’s worth noting that while Saigo is central to the film and is in many ways the stand-in for the audience, this is equally Watanabe’s film. As mentioned above, there is an aura of importance surrounding the man. He draws immediate respect from the viewer even if said viewer is not familiar with his excellent body of work.

Ultimately, Letters from Iwo Jima is the sort of film that precisely tells us something that we know but need to be told again: war is hell. That it comes with a layer of understanding that wasn’t possible years ago is a good thing. That it’s a message we know is a good thing, too specifically because it’s a message that we need drilled into our heads. War is a terrible thing, and the people we’re killing are just as human, just as scared, and just as deserving of life as we are.

Why to watch Letters from Iwo Jima: Because humanizing a former enemy is what we should do.
Why not to watch: It’s depressing as all hell.


  1. I agree with most everything you wrote. This was paired with Flags of Our Fathers and I watched both. I did prefer this film, but I confess that a few years removed from it now whatever impact it had on me has mostly faded.

    1. It's worth going back to when you get the chance. I should really watch Flags of Our Fathers one of these days as well.