In Letters From Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood returns to the same Pacific island that served as backdrop for his war epic Flags of Our Fathers. That movie told the story of the American Marines who raised the flag that became an iconic symbol for the U.S. war effort. This one portrays the battle from the Japanese perspective—in Japanese.
The narrative revolves around Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who's been assigned the unenviable task of defending Iwo Jima against the imminent American onslaught. It's 1944, and Japan is losing the war in the Pacific. Kuribayashi arrives on the island to find a rag-tag detachment awaiting its doom.
As Kuribayashi readies his troops, we get to know several soldiers. Chief among them is the melancholy Saigo, a baker drafted into the army against his wishes and those of his pregnant wife, Hanako. Letters from Saigo to his wife (and Kuribayashi to his son, Taro) help us connect with these men not as soldiers, but as loving fathers and husbands.
Day by day, they await the arrival of American troops. Despite months of preparation, their fortifications prove insufficient to defend the island from the mammoth landing party that finally arrived early in 1945. As the Americans advance, Kuribayashi, Saigo and their fellow soldiers all struggle to deal with the inevitability of their defeat.
At the heart of this story is the question of what it means to fight with honor. For most of the Japanese soldiers, that means dying in battle. There's no way they can win, and most have resigned themselves to their bitter end. The film offers little commentary on the motives or morality of the Japanese war machine. Instead, we simply see the values of these soldiers being put to the ultimate test. Countless war movies have depicted Japanese soldiers as soulless automatons or crazed kamikazes. But Eastwood's depiction humanizes them, showing many to be brave men committed to fighting for their country, even when they're not wholly aligned with its goals.
Gen. Kuribayashi is a complex blend of old Japanese attitudes and new. He, like many of his peers, believes in giving his all to defend the island. Still, before battle, he tells Saigo, "I promised to fight to the death. Family makes it difficult to keep that promise." Yet he will not be deterred from leading the charge, and he promises his men, "I will always be in front of you." Unlike several other generals, Kuribayashi isn't afraid of a tactical retreat. He's committed to fighting as intelligently as possible, and he refuses to waste lives on obviously suicidal counterattacks in the form of banzai charges.
The general stops a junior officer from executing two soldiers (who are considering desertion), admonishing that man not to kill his soldiers needlessly. Kuribayashi also confronts a mean-spirited officer who treats his soldiers like slaves. In a nod to civility, Kuribayashi orders the island's few civilians to flee before hostilities commence.
Saigo, meanwhile, embodies the idea that there's no shame in surrendering a battle that's unwinnable. And it's primarily his love for his family that compels him to consider surrender as a viable option, one that represents sanity, not dishonor. An early letter to his wife sets the stage for that message with the haunting question, "Am I digging my own grave?" He recognizes the inherent value of human life, which is reinforced by a tender flashback scene where he whispers to his unborn son, "Your dad is going to come home for you."
In the big picture, Iwo Jima demonstrates that both the Japanese and the American armies included both noble men and men who made selfish and morally repugnant choices. In doing so, it makes the statement that men in war everywhere are ultimately similar. That point is driven home by a letter carried by a captured American. In it, his mother tells him, "Always do what is right because it is right. I pray for a speedy end to the war and your safe return." After a Japanese soldier who speaks English translates and reads the letter to his troops, one man exclaims, "His mother's words were the same as my mother's."
Examples of good done on both sides of the front line include Japanese soldiers treating the wounds of that captured American, and Americans sparing the life of a Japanese soldier even though his wild actions could easily have been considered threatening.
Before hostilities commence, Japanese soldiers bow before a small shrine. References to prayer for safety and deliverance pop up about half-a-dozen times. In a speech to rally the troops, an officer tells them he'll see them on the other side. And, indeed, several soldiers anticipate an afterlife. Some wear a specially embroidered "1,000 stitch" belt that they superstitiously hope might offer protection.
Iwo Jima was, of course, one of the hardest-fought battles of WWII. The violence is generally depicted here in two ways: Most battle scenes are raw and intense, but not gory; they show men falling down after getting shot or being hurled into the air from explosions caused by bombs, grenades, mortars, etc.—similar to many other war movies made in the last 60 years.
Several lingering camera shots do, however, focus on the battle's carnage in viscerally detailed ways. We see a man whose arm has been blown off in an explosion, with blood pulsing out of what's left of it. A Japanese soldier stares at the face of another who has been badly mangled in an explosion. Several times, soldiers in enclosed spaces are set on fire with flamethrowers and writhe in agony.
One of the film's most heartbreaking scenes shows two lazy Americans killing two Japanese POWs—because they can't be bothered to guard them. When the Japanese later find the bodies, it reinforces to them the idea some have that Americans really are savages. ("Let this be a lesson to those who surrender," says an officer.) Another Japanese deserter is shot in the back as he runs away from his position.
We watch in agony as a small group of Japanese commits suicide by arming grenades and clutching those weapons to their chests. (We glimpse a room full of disfigured corpses.) An officer ends his own life by putting a pistol to his head. (The blast blows blood onto the face of the man next to him.) Still another commits suicide by shooting himself in the stomach after he's already been wounded.
A particularly zealous Japanese officer straps two bombs to himself and lies down among the dead in a battlefield, awaiting an American tank to blow up. In Japan, an officer shoots a civilian family's dog needlessly for barking too much. Back on the island, a horse is killed in the crossfire. A cruel Japanese tactic we hear about (and saw in Flag of Our Fathers) is the order to shoot American medics on the beach. An American is repeatedly bayoneted.
[Spoiler Warning] A badly wounded Kuribayashi orders his personal attendant, Lt. Fujita, to kill him by decapitation. Fujita is shot and killed himself as he raises the sword.
Crude or Profane Language
Subtitles reveal that the s-word is said twice (as a descriptive term), and "d--n" is said a half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Gen. Kuribayashi has a bottle of Johnny Walker. He pours drinks for himself and other officers several times. Many men on both sides of the conflict smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
We learn along with Kuribayashi that reports of Japanese successes and promises of reinforcements have been falsified. A soldier lies to his superior. A manipulative radio broadcast from the Japanese homeland has a children's choir singing a song encouraging the men to sacrifice their lives ("Pride and honor at any price/Our proud island, Iwo Jima").
A soldier is ordered to carry a steaming chamber pot full of excrement out of a cave—during heated combat—to dump it out.
With the possible exception of Terrence Malick's 1998 movie The Thin Red Line, I'm not sure I've ever seen a war movie quite like Letters From Iwo Jima. The Japanese defeat is, of course, a foregone conclusion. But the way Clint Eastwood explores the Japanese psyche during World War II is what this story is really about. The battle scenes, while frequent, are secondary to how various characters respond to the rigor of a battle they know is lost before it begins.
The film's two protagonists, Kuribayashi and Saigo, supply complex, compelling answers to the question of what it means to live and die with honor. Their responses, though different, are completely believable and clearly courageous (with one glaring exception). Building a story around these two men, Eastwood has captured the awfulness, arbitrariness and sheer horror of individual battles within a war.
That sheer horror comes vividly to life onscreen, forcefully removing the film from any "entertainment" category, and as such, it shouldn't be encountered without some thoughtfulness. Still, compared to Flags of Our Fathers, Iwo Jima's gory violence and harsh profanity are less frequent.
More frequent has been the praise film critics have heaped upon Eastwood's second look at this bloody battle. Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum placed it at the top of her best-of-2006 movie list, calling it "an austere, radiant stunner—a soaring achievement, as Eastern in its appreciation of group discipline as Flags is Western in its contemplation of individual responsibility. ... With calm and utmost respect, a quintessentially American director has made a war picture that honors every soldier."
Indeed, every soldier—and every kind of soldier—gets screen time in Iwo Jima. While Kuribayashi, Saigo and others display moral fortitude in different ways, some of their compatriots do not. Likewise, the Americans' decision to kill two surrendering Japanese made me at first feel as if Eastwood had crossed the line from making an anti-war movie to an anti-American movie. But then he mitigates the broad-stroke symbolism of the scene by including another in which a different group of Americans does the right thing in the face of much harsher circumstances.
Perhaps, then, Iwo Jima feels so different from other war movies, especially those of yesteryear, because its ultimate reason for being is not to wave the flag of a particular country or cause. Instead, its twin morals are that the individual acts required of warriors in war are often utterly unspeakable, and that there are good and bad men on both sides of any conflict.