Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

While America has crafted more than enough recounts of WWII, many gung ho and patriotic, Director Clint Eastwood finds a viable justification for yet another WWII film: tell it from the enemy’s side. It’s certainly not the first or the best to do this (see All Quiet on the Western Front), it takes a familiar story and flips it for American audiences.  After setting up the allied perspective with Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood’s next feature tells the battle of Iwo Jima from the other side.

While this might seem clever, there’s something slightly disturbing about this film. While Eastwood depicts a film that creates human and empathetic characters, boys and men not unlike those fighting in the American army, there’s still a strong sense that somehow, someway this is self-serving to the American view of the world. The entire film is pervaded with a sense of condescension against the Japanese notion of honor and glory on the battlefield.

While I’ll be the first to admit that the Japanese use some extreme and questionable battle tactics with kamikaze fighters and suicidal attacks, their plan of attack is built around a deeply set sense of honor for their country and a huge sense of shame upon failure of performing their duty to their upmost potential. This leads to some extreme behavior, such as the idea of never falling back adnnever surrendering, even if it means death.

Eastwood subverts this by placing two characters in the film that are deemed more worthy than other Japanese soldiers because of their American=like sensibilities. General Kuribyashi (Ken Watanabe) is shown commanding his men in a way that conflicts with the cultural views of his culture, creating a tension between him and those immediately under his chain of command. When he orders a withdraw, it causes a ruckus amid a raging battle.

Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young Japanese soldier who bumbles through most of the movie, is constantly doubting and usurping the Japanese values. He sees little value in holding Iwo Jima, hesitates to carry out many of the orders of his officers and is generally rewarded for disobeying just about every value imposed upon him by his culture.

This is not to say that I believe that the Japanese culture is completely correct in its views, or that individuals should blindly follows the dominant views of their culture, just that I believe the film condescends and judges that culture in a way that isn’t productive. For all of the craft into making believable and human Japanese soldiers, the film then turns to condemn their core values, an essential part of their identity as Japanese soldiers.

Perhaps that’s the point; perhaps it’s a humanized critique of why the Japanese lost the war. The film is written by Iris Yamashita, a woman of Japanese descent who, born in American, spent time in both Japan and America, perhaps gaining insights into the differences between the two cultures that led to such a failure on the Japanese side. The problem is that the entire presentation seems backhanded, in that creating a humanized film about Japanese soldiers only serves to depict their demise due to inferior values.

Even ignoring this, the rest of the film is mediocre at best. An unnecessary pair of bookends and a bloated runtime ruin the pacing while the battles are undercut by subpar CGI and erratic camerawork. While the film might have started off with the best of intentions, it ultimately leaves me wishing I had watched another war film told by filmmakers with the same origins as the side they decided to follow.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing