Video Vault: Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima
2007: Clint Eastwood
Rated R – 140 minutes
Vault Rating: 8

I suspect today’s feature rents far less than it’s English language companion, “Flags of Our Fathers.”

Clint Eastwood filmed them simultaneously, following a natural, probably necessary calling to paint the picture of the epic World War II battle for Iwo Jima from both sides. “Letters from Iwo Jima” was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and, in my view, is narrowly the better of the two films.

Seldom have two films so needed one another, and you probably shouldn’t view one without the other. Both films study the real-life battle in true war movie fashion by covering the actual fighting adequately, but they seem to focus and gain power by emphasizing thoughts of home. Things like patriotism, honor and duty are all examined in proper, truthful and powerful ways.

Both films also view war through the rose colored glasses of propaganda. In “Flags,” the cold realities of war are examined when the government uses Joe Rosenthal’s magical photo of the raising of the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi to create heroes. These “Heroes of Iwo Jima” were brought stateside to spur a massive war bonds drive. Never mind that some of them weren’t even in the famous photo, which has become the most reproduced photo of all time.

From the Japanese perspective, it becomes clear to Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) that the Japanese public and even high ranking officers are being propagandized as to the progress of the war. Even letters home from the troops were carefully censored. And when Kuribayashi realizes he has no air or sea support on the island, that he has, in effect, been given a suicide mission, his options are narrowed to exactly one.

In preparing, Kuribayashi had his soldiers dig 11 miles of tunnels on the island in support of heavily fortified hidden bunkers.

“We soldiers dig,” says one soldier in a letter home. “We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in. Am I digging my own grave?”

Suffice to say that Kuribayashi’s plans, some of which flew in the face of standard Japanese military procedures, created a last stand mentality that drew out fighting for a bloody 34 days against overwhelming odds.

The battle was the first in the Pacific theater to take place on Japanese soil, so a national pride was certainly at stake and surrender was not an option. Of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers on the island, only 216 had been taken prisoner by the end of fighting.

A hard look is given the Japanese concept of honor. Surrender was considered a disgrace and some chose instead to clutch live grenades to their own hearts.

This concept is further drawn out in the character of a Japanese grunt named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). He’s not a particularly fit soldier as he’s seen struggling with his rifle and wondering why they don’t concede the deserted island to the Americans. Still, we find Saigo to be a decent human being whose promise to return to his wife runs contrary to the common nationalist pride.

It is this basic human conundrum that gives the best films about war their heft and “Letters from Iwo Jima” sports more than heft, delivering instead an emotional wallop. For it is not only that a given soldier’s humanity is examined in a time of horror, but also that the same soldier also exists on the other side of the thin red line.

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