' Cinema Romantico: Letters From Iwo Jima

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima

The knee jerk reaction would be to term Clint Eastwood's latest opus a War Movie. Maybe it is. But it's unlike any war movie I've seen. It's less about war than the inevitability of death.

I cannot say I know anywhere near as much regarding the real side of the Japanese story of WWII as I do the American side. Growing up much of you get on that particular subject is slanted. One of the Japanese soldiers in the film makes mention of how he hears the American soldiers are savages and this is the portrait I recall being given of the Japanese. I'll never forget reading about the kamikaze pilots for the first time. That's always stayed with me. These pilots were so devoted to their country and their Emperor they were willing to sacrifice their lives in such an extreme way. Of course, then you think, hey, those pilots probably didn't want to sacrifice their life. They probably had a wife and kids.

As "Letters from Iwo Jima" opens (and the opening shot is a beauty) a few soldiers are digging a trench on the beach and one of them remarks, the Americans can have the island. Oops. His commanding officer overhears this and rather than simply reprimanding him with words, he proceeds to give him a solid beat-down via whip.

This establishes what we'll be seeing for the next two and a half hours. Loyalty to country comes first and foremost - ahead of your family and your own life and anything else.

General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, who is the only actor you will recognize) arrives to plot the island's defense against the pending American invasion. My personal feeling is that tension in a film is best generated not from a character's fate being hidden from them but from a character slowly and surely becoming aware of his or her own fate. And that is how "Letters from Iwo Jima" generates it.

Kuribayashi learns Japan's combined fleet has been destroyed. He learns he will receive no support from the air force. Then he is given the order that everyone on the island should die defending it. He stays resolute as he is being broken, but can you see him coming apart at the seams. Especially when the officers below him contradict his orders, supposedly out of (here's that word again) loyalty to Japan.

Eastwood is far less interested in showing scenes of war than in showing the reactions of the various Japanese soldiers as the war is being lost. Remaining at your post until the very end and dying with so-called "honor" seems far more important than retreating and possibly maintaining a defense for however long possible.

There's one moment I want to mention in particular. Blink and you might miss it. I almost did. The Japanese soldiers rush out of the cave. The Americans are taking Mount Suribachi. And up there in the corner of the movie screen, almost as an after-thought, you see the six American soldiers raising the flag. Never seen it from this perspective, have we? And I think it's extremely important that we do.

Where "Flags of Our Fathers" felt lifeless, bland and like one of those shows on the history chanel where the actors play out the scene as the narrator describes it, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is real, immediate and makes you feel as if you're on that little slab of an island even if you really, really don't want to be there.

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