Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Liked it more back when it first came out, but still pretty sore that it lost Best Picture to The Departed.
Letters from Iwo Jima is about the said Battle of Iwo Jima that took place between the United States and Japan during WWII as told from the perspectives of a general and his infantryman in the Japanese military who fought to protect their homeland despite having zero chance of achieving victory. Not much else to say on the matter, but there really is a lot going on here for such a brief summary.
Back when I first saw this in ’06, I was flat-out floored. Being a huge fan of Erich Maria Remarche’s All Quiet on the Western Front (never saw the movie, should probably get around to that), I’m all about war movies, books, anything that’s told from the side you wouldn’t expect. You don’t expect to pick up a novel told from the viewpoint of a German soldier during WWI with the intent of sympathizing with the narrator, same thing goes for Robert E. Lee and his grey coats in Michael Shaara’s unreal Civil War novel, The Killer Angels, but the fact that you do is one of the many things about them that sheds a whole new light on war and those who fight.
And it’s that same unlikely narrative that has always grabbed me about this movie. For starters, the only thing I knew about the Battle of Iwo Jima before seeing this movie was the iconic Americana photograph that ultimately came out of it and served as the inspiration for this movie’s sister, Flags of Our Fathers. As if that wasn’t bad enough, my vast knowledge of Japan’s involvement in WWII also boiled down to Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kamikaze pilots. Yeah, I don’t know what I was daydreaming about during all those history classes either. But I will say this: as far as the history books are concerned, if you were on the losing side of a war, there’s a good chance you ended up getting grouped into a whole and villainized when all was said and done. And that’s a damn shame.
Not to say that the Nazi Party was misunderstood or anything, because sometimes the folks on the losing end actually are really bad dudes, but the thing about war that this movie understands is that it’s never cut-and-dry and sometimes the “good” guys are just as bad as the “bad” guys. I’m eternally grateful that I’ve never been on the front lines and I’m not gonna pretend to know what it’s like to be a soldier, but it’s stuff like this that reminds me how crazy and ugly war is. I mean, it’s the same kind of reaction you’d get from any war movie from Patton to Platoon because I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone repping the viewpoint of “War makes sense.” Although the thing that separates this Iwo Jima from the rest not only goes back to the way it was fought, but to the way it was lost.
As an American, I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand the Japanese notion of “honor”. I think it’s a fine ideal to live by and I can absolutely respect it, but I can’t foresee myself being in the proper mindset down the road to commit seppuku after dishonoring my family in some way, shape or form. So when a rogue Japanese commander here orders his men to all grab a grenade, pull the pin and set it off over their chests rather than continue to fight a losing battle alongside their comrades, the effect is devastating even as a passive observer. And that’s a lot of what makes this all so powerful, the way it emphasizes the unpredictable brutality and kindness of human nature even in the most lawless of circumstances.
As displayed by the great Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara as General Kuribayashi and Baron Nishi respectively, even though this is a war where men you don’t know are actively trying to kill you, they are nevertheless men. The battlefield isn’t a place where one thinks to find civility, but when it comes, it leaves its mark. And by the same token, when that same civility is rejected by the individuals that one would expect to uphold it, it’ll very much leave you troubled. It’ll come out of left field, it may leave you wondering “Why?” but that’s what you’re supposed to think and that might be the biggest reason this movie will stick with you.
But I gotta say, I wasn’t crazy about this first Act. The tone changes significantly once the Americans hit the beaches, but up until that point, the characters didn’t feel all that realistic to me, it almost felt jokey at times and it took me a bit to start caring about our protagonist, Saigo, too. Then again, that all changes by Act two and it’s smooth sailing from that point forward. And Clint sure does a great job filming this, some of the scenery he captures is just stunning and I totally dig all the faded color tones that add a really stark vibe that’s initially missing from the script.
And I love that it’s all in Japanese. Seems pretty unusual for an American director to make a movie that’ll force his hometown audience to endure subtitles, but that’s just one more reason why Clint is the man and it’s one more reason why you shouldn’t write off something “because I’m gonna have to read the whole time.” Serenity now…
Man, I vividly remember leaving the theater after first seeing this and being emotionally shell shocked by the whole experience. And while I wish I had come away that same feeling when I watched it again most recently, the gravity of what this movie has to say continues to challenge and affect in ways that movies rarely do. Yeah, you know how it ends before it even starts and you know there’s a mighty good chance that a lot of the characters here are probably gonna die on the battlefield, but it’s not about that. It’s about the many faces of humanity in a setting where humanity is seldom found and told from the viewpoint of a side that often goes voiceless. Deep stuff that totally got robbed of an Oscar.