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LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, 2006
A sprawling account of the battle for Iwo Jima in WWII. Following the lives of a group of Japanese soldiers who have pledged their lives to protect the sacred island of Iwo Jima from falling to the US military. This film is the second half of Clint Eastwood’s two-part drama about the Iwo Jima battle, the first half being Flags of Our Fathers (2006).
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Director Clint Eastwood’s masterful dual account of the Iwo Jima battle is brilliantly realized with this second perspective. This second perspective is not simply a different variation on Flags of Our Fathers but it actually enriches the experience of Flags of Our Fathers (which should certainly be watched first). With the first movie still fresh in the audience’s head, the lasting images of Flags of Our Fathers bleed over onto Letters From Iwo Jima and cause you to compare, contrast and question the movie in a way that would not have worked if the films had been combined.
Contemporary filmmakers often play with structure to achieve different effects with narrative. Tarantino with Jackie Brown (1997) uses multiple perspectives in the final shopping mall caper, allowing the viewer to experience all the characters involvement and the dramatic conclusions of each of them. With each version we are given more information and the juxtaposition of each character’s angle on the versions before and after create an interesting narrative. Eastwood takes the idea of filmic perspective a stage further by making two separate films that allow you to be on both sides of a war.
Cinema has indeed been waiting for a piece of work like this. As good as earlier war movies were, like Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) they clearly opt for the US perspective only. While this is not a flaw, I’m suggesting that after time you begin to get curious about the faces we see on the opposite side of the battlefield. I wanted to know the story behind the young girl sniper in Full Metal Jacket and what path lead her to that building to open fire on those US marines? Thankfully Eastwood tells us the story of those faces that appear out of the ground firing artillery at the US soldiers and the decapitated Japanese bodies that lay underground untouched by US military hands. After Flags of Our Fathers we remember these images very vividly and from start to finish Letters From Iwo Jima shows us the journey.
Lower down in the ranks we see another argument played out by soldiers: Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase). Saigo is caught speaking out about how little he cares for Iwo Jima, he makes light of the military’s plight wondering; why should they protect a so-called “sacred land” where nothing even grows? We also hear Shimizu recount his days in mainland Japan before he was discharged (for not killing an innocent family pet) and was sent to Iwo Jima. We can see that both men don’t really want be there. In a brutal scene that shows us the soldiers commit suicide by grenade in order to die “honorably” both Saigo and Shimizu refuse to follow suit. They will fight for country but refuse to die needlessly.
It’s brutal to watch the men kill themselves in the name of honor but it’s also quite an amazing experience to witness such a powerful discipline be adhered to. Both Saigo and Shimizu conspire to do the unthinkable… wave the white flag in surrender. This is a direct defiance of the code to which Shimizu pays the ultimate price for. Fuelled by a faith in the opposition, Shimizu hopes for salvation by surrendering but it is shattered. The importance of this code then becomes so much more relevant to Saigo who continues on. In the emotional final scenes when General Kuribayashi asks Saigo to bury him and if it “…is still Japanese soil?” A tear runs down Saigo’s cheek as he finally realizes what he has been fighting for and indeed how important the code is to the fight however futile. It’s a deeply touching moment that allows us to understand the opposition we saw only fleetingly in Flags of Our Fathers from the US marine perspective.
Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima together as a single body of work is arguably the greatest cinematic portrait of war. Not just because it takes care to tell both sides of the story, but also in the deeply complex ideas it straddles and the sheer realism of each soldiers journey. While it is not a documentary, it takes great care to strike a balance of drama and truth that we can believe, feel and falls in line with historical record. As Schindler’s List (1993) has been shown to young people in history classes, so should both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.
Future generations should be encouraged to study both sides of all conflicts and learn the importance of empathy in a time of conflict. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima are a positive step forward for cinema… well done that man Clint Eastwood!