Tuesday, June 10, 2014

#4 - Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)


BACK-STORY:  “Letters from Iwo Jima” is Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to "Flags of Our Fathers".  They were filmed back to back.  It is the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective.  It is based on the letters of the Japanese commander Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi and the book So Sad to Fall in Battle by Kumiko Kakehashi.  The movie was filmed in California with a one day shoot on Iwo Jima.  The film was well received by critics and made numerous top ten lists.  It was a big hit in Japan, but did not do very well in the States (those damned subtitles!).  It was nominated for Academy Awards for Picture, Director and Original Screenplay and won for Sound Effects.  The original title was supposed to be “Red Sun, Black Sand” ( which was apparently too cool ).

OPENING:  A group of Japanese archeologists are excavating a cave on Iwo Jima in 2005.  They uncover letters written by members of the garrison, including Gen. Kuribayashi.

SUMMARY:  In 1944, a sad sack named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is digging a trench and cynically grousing about whether the island is worth fighting for.  A flashback reveals that he is a conscripted baker who was torn from his pregnant wife.  Not all Japanese soldiers were fanatics.  Lt. Tanida (Takumi Bando) starts caning him but is stopped by the newly arrived Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe).  The general halts the digging of trenches on the beaches and changes the defense plan to reflect his belief that the Americans can not be stopped from establishing a beachhead.  He intends a defense in depth (literally, through caves and tunnels).  This change does not go over well with some of his subordinates who are more the banzai types.  Kuribayashi finds a kindred spirit in his tank commander.  Col. Nishi is an Olympic hero having competed in the equestrian events.

"I don't see a fleet.  What did you say
CGI means?"
                The movie balances the officers with the enlisted by introducing a foil for Saigo.  Shimizu (Ryo Kase) was a member of the Kempeitai (Japan’s equivalent of the Gestapo).  Better watch what you say around him.  He argues that the Japanese will win the battle because the Americans are undisciplined, inferior, and too emotional.  The ensuing bombing and strafing raid by Corsairs (which defy war movie clichés by actually having bombs to drop) sobers up the defenders.  The Americans may be inferior, but they have a lot of stuff and the garrison can expect no external help.  Kuribayashi outlines his plan to the enlisted.  They should be proud to be defending the homeland.  Your goal should be to take at least ten Americans with you.  You will not be going home.  In spite of this gloomy forecast, Saigo puts on his 1,000 stitch belt (senninbari) for protection.

                When the invasion commences, Saigo is an ammunition bearer on Mount Suribachi.  When Tanida orders his unit to commit suicide (against Kuribayashi’s orders), Saigo and Shimizu decide a grenade held to their chests is not for them.  They cross a bullet-infested no man’s land after dark to reach the other side of the island.  They are about to be executed by the fanatical Lt. Ito (Shido Nakamura) when Kuribayashi intervenes.  Later, Ito straps some land mines across his chest and goes out to suicide bomb an American tank.  Where’s a tank when you need one?  He returns frustrated.

sooner or later, dudes gotta banzai
                Saigo and Shimizu are now with the noble (literally, he was a baron) Nishi.  Nishi insists on treating a wounded American prisoner humanely.  He also reads aloud the soldier’s letter to his mother.  If it wasn’t for this war …    (Nishi has been outside Japan and flashbacks apprise us of Kuribayashi’s pleasant stay in America before the war – good Japanese officers are not zenophobic.)  This contrasts with an earlier scene where a G.I. (Iggy from “Flags of Our Fathers”?) was bayoneted to death after being captured.  Shimizu’s backstory (via flashback) reveals that he was thrown out of the Kampeitai because he refused to shoot a dog.  (In movies, the killing of dogs is the best measure of a characters morality.)  Nishi is blinded by shrapnel and orders his men to escape.  He commits suicide using his big toe to trigger his rifle.  (The movie is a good tutorial on the various methods of Japanese suicides.  Although it surprisingly leaves out seppuku.)

                Saigo and Shimizu decide to surrender.  Shimizu manages to get captured and is about to say “who needs a thousand stitch belt?” when the Americans guarding him decide they are bored.  Saigo meets up with Kuribayashi.  He saves Saigo’s life a third time by appointing him burner of documents including letters.  The general goes off to lead that banzai charge he had been reining in for the whole battle.

CLOSING:  Saigo buries the letters because he is a big fan of archeology.  Kuribayashi leads the attack but is wounded.  His loyal minion Lt. Fujita (Hiroshi Watanabe) carries him from the battlefield.  The next morning as the sun rises, Kuribayashi insists on beheading.  Unfortunately, Fujita is sniped mid-stoke.  Saigo arrives soon after and assists the general by giving him the .45 that Kuribayashi had been presented by his American hosts.  Saigo defies all odds (and the script?) to be taken alive.

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Unlikely.  It is pretty grim and it is an almost all male cast.  The combat is not particularly graphic and the characters are well developed.  The movie does have less machismo than most war movies.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Kuribayashi was from the samurai caste.  In the late 1920s, he was a military attaché in the United States.  He toured the country in a car and was impressed with America’s industrial capacity and felt it would fight hard in the event of war with Japan. He then served in the cavalry in China and then was Chief of Staff in Hong Kong.  In 1943, he was appointed commander of the Imperial Guard in Tokyo.  In 1944, Tojo summoned him and gave him command of Iwo Jima.  Some historians posit that this was punishment for a fire set in the barracks by one of his cadets.  When he arrived on the island in June, he was greeted by hundreds of school children waving flags and singing patriotic songs.  (The movie does not show this.)  A few days later, U.S. fighters attacked and returned the next day for more bombing and strafing.  A fortnight later, another raid resulted in the shooting down of 66 Japanese fighters.  Starting in August, the island was bombed almost daily (a fact that is not shown in the film).  By the time of the invasion, the consistent bombing had deprived the island of almost all its fighter planes, but had done little damage to the underground defenses. 

                In August, Rear Admiral Ichimaru arrived with 2,300 naval reinforcemnents and he took command of the island’s naval forces.  Ichimaru was a disciple of the standard Japanese doctrine of defending the beaches.  Kuribayashi looked at the results of Saipan and realized that without air and naval support, the beach defenses would not survive the bombardment and onslaught.  He ended up compromising a bit by allowing some pillboxes close to the beach.  The vast majority of the effort was put into caves, tunnels, and other underground defenses.  These were not only extensive and elaborate, but virtually bomb proof.  Nishi’s tanks were emplaced.

"Thanks, if I ever don't have a sword,
this will come in handy"

                The movie short-changes the two day pre-landing naval bombardment.  It was the heaviest of the war.  It does a good job of showing the Japanese soldiers surviving in the caves.  It also does a fair job of depicting the lack of food, water, and ammunition.  Also realistic is the undoubted fact that not all the Japanese were fanatics who wanted to die.  However, Saigo and Shimizu probably over-represent the soldiers who wanted to survive.  Just as the emphasis on Kuribayashi and Nishi tends to dilute the reality of Japanese officers being martinets.  The movie does an excellent job with Kuribayashi and Nishi.  The general’s tactics are proper.  The moment in the film where he pretends to defend a stretch of the beach while a staff officer runs around in front of him actually happened.  He did allow the Americans to land and held fire until they were inland.  He forbade human wave assaults and suicides.  He encouraged the men to give up ground as grudgingly as possible. 

                Nishi is a fascinating personage.  Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi (and his famous horse Uranus) won the gold medal in show jumping at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.  He was a celebrity and was acquainted with movie stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.  He went on to compete in the 1936 Munich Olympics, but fell from his horse (possibly to allow Japan’s future ally to win the event).  He naturally was in Japan’s cavalry and transitioned into the tank corps.  When he was a transferring to Iwo, all 26 of his tanks were sunk.  Later, he was able to get 22 in time for the battle.   

Who brings a horse to a 1945 battle?
                The film is not meant to be instructive as to the battle.  In fact, it is difficult to tell what the big picture is and what the time frame is.  The movie is more on a personal level.  And many of the characters are actual figures from the battle.  I am referring to the officers, of course.  Several key incidents in the movie are based on reality.  Some officers like Tanida did encourage their men to use grenades to commit suicide (against Kuribayashi’s orders).  In the movie, Ito leads an aborted banzai attack.  Ito’s attempt at becoming a human bomb was based on Lt. Satoru Omagari who was unsuceesful in waiting for a tank to blow up.  In reality, Gen. Senda did lead an attack to try to recover Mt. Suribachi.  The song Kuribayashi listens to from Japanese school children during the battle really happened.  It was called “The Song of Iwo Jima”.

 The small details are accurate.  The Kempeitai, which means “Military Police Corps” was the Japanese secret police from 1881-1945.  It was noted for its brutality and certainly would have killed a dog for barking.  A Senninbari, or “thousand stitch belt”, was a strip of cloth that had stitches from one thousand different women.  It was an amulet that was supposed to protect the wearer.  The various methods of suicide are instructive.  Everyone is familiar with hari-kari, but the use of grenades and rifles is less well-known.  I first encountered these methods in reading about the Battle of Tarawa when I was younger.  After all, regular soldiers would not have had access to katanas and there rifles were too long to point and fire normally, hence having to use your big toe to pull the trigger.  

I am going to keep my helmet on for protection
while I hold this grenade to my chest
                The deaths of Nishi and Kuribayashi are problematical.  Nishi suffered burns to his eyes.  He did lead an attack but it was halted by severe fire and he then probably committed suicide by shooting himself.  He did not believe in seppuku.  It seems likely he would have used a pistol instead of a rifle.  Kuribayashi planned to lead the last attack with 500 men, but he changed his mind and instead led the men to a new position.  He apparently was wounded in the process.  It is unknown how he died, but the best guess is it was by way of seppuku at the mouth of the cave he was in.  It is extremely unlikely that it occurred as depicted in the film.  In fact, his death is one of the weakest moments in the film.

CRITIQUE:  “Letters from Iwo Jima” is an extremely well made film.  Eastwood obviously was intent on creating a masterpiece.  He does this in a non-Tarantino way.  The cinematography is a bit artsy with the now familiar washed out look.  Appropriate for a volcanic ash island.  The combat is of the “Band of Brothers” style, although the movie is light on action.  What there is is intense, but not particularly graphic.  The score conforms to this by being understated.  The opposite of the pompous music of most war epics.  You won’t remember the movie for its sound track.  In fact, there is a notable lack of music in the film.  The subterranean sets are amazing.  Very claustrophobic. 

"I heard the Americans are undisciplined,
inferior, and too emotional, so no problem" 
The movie relies on characterizations to propel the narrative.  The main characters are well developed and appealing.  They are fleshed out and not just from the flashbacks.  This is especially significant because it is so rare to see the war through Japanese eyes.  Plus Eastwood balances the officers with the enlisted.  I feel I have to point out that all the major characters are noble, which is a pretty ridiculously high percentage for the Japanese Army.  The only typical Japanese soldiers are minor characters.  Hell even the kampeitai member turns out to be unfanatical.  Kuribayashi is virtually saintly.  Saigo is likeable and you want him to live to get back to his wife and newborn.  The fact that the audience gets its wish is evidence that Eastwood pulls his punches on the anti-war theme.  The dialogue is fine, but there are few lines that are memorable.  It was a nice touch to liberally quote from the actual letters.

                The acting by the ensemble is excellent.  Wattanabe is perfect as Kuribayashi and was a wise marketing choice.  If the movie had been made twenty years earlier, the role would have gone to Toshiro Mifune.  The surprise is Kazunari Ninomiya as Saigo.  He is a huge pop star in Japan.  He plays sad sack conscript well.  (His survival in the movie was probably a recognition of what his death’s impact would have had on Japan’s teenage girls.)

if Justin Beiber made a war movie ...
it would suck
                The film has some obvious themes that are hard to miss.  One is that most of the soldiers just wanted to survive.  This is a bit of a stretch when it comes to the Japanese army, but it’s a nice change from the way their soldiers were depicted in previous movies.  The movie is very sympathetic toward the Japanese.  It’s revisionist in this respect.  (As a history buff I should mention that revisionism is often wrong.)  A related theme is that we’re all humans and have human needs and emotions.  The movie is quite humanistic.  Possibly more than the dirty war in the Pacific deserves.  An interesting aspect of the script is how it balances some of the scenes.  At one point a captured American soldier is bayoneted to death and then later, under similar circumstances, another is treated humanely.  The death of Shimizu and the capture of Saigo are also mirrored.  The plot is simplistic, but accomplishes its goal of retelling the battle from the Japanese perspective effectively.

CONCLUSION:  When you pair off “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”, you have a magnificent achievement for Clint Eastwood.  Credit should also be given to the producers who bank-rolled these risky projects.  Only Eastwood could have pulled off dual films about the Battle of Iwo Jima.  They are so different, yet the pair cover the pivotal battle as well as could ever have been expected.  The dual perspective has been done before in movies like “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “The Longest Day”, but “Flags” and “Letters” are unique in covering the same battle not only from different perspectives, but with totally different themes.  Both are commendable for bringing light to worthy historical topics.  So both fit one of my qualifications for great war movies.  The fact that neither is great simply means they fall a little short in execution.

                I am in the distinct minority who feel that “Letters” is overrated.  I admire it and think it is a significant addition to war movie history.  However, partly due to its humanistic themes and perspective, most critics wanted to love it more than it deserved.  As a person who has read a lot on the war in the Pacific, I can attest to the revisionist nature of the characterizations.  I am not saying that Kuribayashi and Nishi are unrealistically depicted, but I do feel that the movie gives an inaccurate depiction of the defenders of the island.  No wonder it did well in Japan.  It showed the way modern Japanese want to remember the defenders. 

                Now I’ll go further on a limb, I feel “Flags” is the better war movie. It is more accurate and has a more important story to tell.


Acting  -  A
Action  -  7/10
Accuracy  -  B
Realism  -  B
Plot  -  B
Cliches  -  B




  1. I found Flags of Our Fathers a bit cheesy - not bad though - but this one did so not work for me. There was a element that annoyed me I just can't remember waht it was. It has no business on position #4 - not even among a Top 100. I'll have to re-watch and review them, maybe I'll like "Flags" better now that I haven't watched a whole bunch of Infantry Combat films.

  2. the war movie buffJune 11, 2014 at 7:59 AM

    I don't know if I would call it cheesy. I would say it is more Old School than recent war movies like "Saving Private Ryan". But unlike Old School, it is making a rare commentary on hero worship and the use of heroes to sell a war. What is remarkable is Eastwood's "Letters" takes a totally different approach on the same battle. The two movies together are a remarkable achievement.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.