Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Letters from Iwo Jima - Movie Review

Letters from Iwo Jima 2006
When Clint Eastwood’s WWII saga began in October with “Flags of Our Fathers”, we were prepared to enjoy a well told tale of heroism and brotherhood along the lines of those vintage classics from the masters such as “Objective Burma!” and “They Were Expendable”. With the premiere of his flipside companion piece told from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who defended Iwo Jima against the American G.I. juggernaut, we were completely blindsided by the power, majesty and spirituality that Clint has instilled into “Letters from Iwo Jima”.

These are two of the year’s best flicks, separately and together may very well be the best movie going experience of the season. Originally intended to be directed by a Japanese auteur, Clint has bravely taken on the reigns armed with a venerable onset translator to direct an extremely talented band of brothers in one of the most poignant war epics in recent memory. We knew the man was crafty, but failed to realize he could be so poetic.

Letters from Iwo Jima” is framed with the storytelling device of soldiers writing their farewell letters to loved ones back in Japan. Loved ones we get to glimpse in some lovely, effective scenes. The reason their farewells start so early in the picture is that the truth is written in the sulphur of Iwo Jima itself. No man is expected to return home after the Americans begin their attack. Understaffed, lacking the basic supplies and with little or no support from a crumbling Japanese military, the men on Iwo Jima quickly realize that this will indeed be their final stand.

Once the man in charge arrives, one General Tadamichi Kuribayashi to inspect the island personally and to offer his plan of defense – the soldiers prepare themselves for the very worst, knowing that the only resource left to them is to die an honorable death. And by that, they are informed that they are expected to kill at least ten American soldiers before they are permitted to die. Come hell or high water. Which is a likely possibility on this hellhole of a rock.

Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe leads the actors as General Kuribayashi, a career man whose background includes an extended stay in the United States where he learned to appreciate a different culture and respect the differences between the two countries. Differences that he is willing to exploit in the name of warfare. For as his soldiers are briefed, we learn the main difference is that the Japanese care for their country, their honor and their spirituality above all. Their viewpoint on American soldiers is that they care first and foremost for themselves, protecting the wounded and capturing the glory.

Let’s just step back for a moment before anybody gets pissy and realize that neither side comes out looking very good in the end if you examine those traits. If the Japanese care more for their country, honor and the afterlife than their own families – the depths of their passions are questionable in the very least. If the American soldiers are more concerned for glory and protecting each other on the field of battle, their patriotism and honor is called into question. Somebody get a ruler, and ask the boys to whip it out. We'll decide this once and for all.

The ridiculousness of war itself is the theme here. One can argue till the ends of time if any war was “just” or “deserved”. What it typically boiled down to was a pissing match between boys and their guns over a hunk of rock. In this case, the rock was Iwo Jima, the pissing match one of the more decisive battles in WWII history and a real turning point in the minds of Americans back home who took the famed photo of the flag raising over Iwo Jima to mean that the Allies had more than a fighting chance to defeat the Axis powers. While “Flags of Our Fathers” examined the cost of bravery on the psyche of the average G.I. – “Letters from Iwo Jima” seems to cast its lens on the proud traditions of the Japanese military that doomed thousands of its soldiers to suffer unbelievable agony in a losing battle over a rock in the Pacific.

Kazunari Ninomiya portrays Saigo, a Japanese grunt that begins the film complaining excessively over the hell like circumstances of their plight, only to discover within himself a sense of purpose that we for one could never have foreseen. His letters home to his wife reveal a man who was shamed into entering the military, but felt it his moral duty to his family honor to defend his nation. Saved from beatings and a possible beheading for insubordination twice by General Kuribayashi, Saigo soon realizes that the only decent way to emerge victorious from this bloodbath is too follow his leader through the pits of hell itself in order to maintain his dignity. It is the central performance of the film, a character arch that grows in intensity and ultimately shines as one of the best of the year. Kudos to you Kazunari or Ninomiya! (We can never tell with those Japanese names.) A job well done. (Sidenote: Who knew he was a former Japanese boy band member? Could have knocked us over with a feather.)

Tsuyoshi Ihara is very impressive as Baron Nishi, a onetime Olympic equestrian champion whose taste for the finer things in life appear to him to run concurrent with loyalty to the flag and his commander. Their scenes together of camaraderie demonstrate the hierarchal class structure in the Japanese culture of the day. A class system blown to hell during the worst fighting of the battle. But, it is for the Baron’s own sense of decency and courage and respect that we realize that this proud and preening man is perhaps the most humane one trapped on the island.

What makes this film so very notable is the care and detail worked into the various stories. Clint finds the perfect moments to reflect on who these men were in a very spare and tightly focused manner. We don’t linger too long on any backstory, just enough to recognize the men beneath the battle gear. And once the bullets start to fly and the battle royal has begun, we care about their outcome despite already knowing the denouement. For having seen “Letters from Iwo Jima” after “Flags of Our Fathers”, the way that Clint dovetails both sides of the story into one large and glorious canvas is truly inspiring work. There are snippets here and connections there that are traceable throughout the films, but somehow never seem to cover the same exact territory. They are wonderful companion pieces, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the vastly different in tone and subject matter of Yves Robert’s “My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle. (God, we love those flicks. Go rent them NOW!)

While many moviegoers seem to have missed “Flags of Our Fathers”, we hope the advance buzz and Oscar rumors are sufficient to help revive it in time to watch in tandem with “Letters from Iwo Jima”. For these are two, or one (depends on your point of view) of the finest films this year and deserve to be seen in all their glory on the big screen. Don’t be one of the losers to miss out. Go see them now – you’ll be glad we sent you! Bless you all!

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Iris Yamashita
Story & Screenplay by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis
Based on the book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi

Ken Watanabe as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi
Kazunari Ninomiya as Saigo
Tsuyoshi Ihara as Baron Nishi
Ryo Kase as Shimizu
Shido Nakamura as Lieutenant Ito
Hiroshi Watanabe as Lieutenant Fujita
Takumi Bando as Captain Tanida
Yuki Matsuzaki as Nozaki
Takashi Yamaguchi as Kashiwara
Eijiro Ozaki as Lieutenant Okubo
Nae Yuuki as Hanako
Lucas Elliott as Sam
Sonny Seiichi Saito as Medic Endo
Mark Moses as American Officer
Roxanne Hart as Officer’s Wife

Cinematography by Tom Stern
Film Editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
Original Music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens
Costume Design by Deborah Hopper
Production Design by Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami
Set Decoration by Gary Fettis



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