Sunday, March 11, 2007

Review - Letters From Iwo Jima

Winston Churchill once said “history is written by the victors”, and it is a quote which carries particular resonance when looking at cinema’s various visions of warfare. Over the years Hollywood has turned to war films time and time again to find inspiring tales of courage, or examinations of complex moral issues, but their stories of young men who have fought and died for their country have often tended to ignore those who did the same on the other side. In too many war films the enemy is given a short shrift, they’re little more than a unknowable horde which must be defeated. Letters From Iwo Jima is Clint Eastwood’s admirable attempt to redress the balance.

This is, of course, the second half of Eastwood’s hugely ambitious World War II double-bill, with Flags of Our Fathers a very recent memory. That film followed a more traditional route, following the story of the American soldiers who raised the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima, with the director attempting to undermine notions of heroism and glamour which generally surround tales from the battlefield.
Flags of Our Fathers was told from a strictly American point of view - we hardly saw a Japanese face aside from the few occasions when one would burst out from his hiding place with murderous zeal - and instead Eastwood has decided to offer a whole second film from the perspective of the vanquished foe.

Letters From Iwo Jima opens in 2005 with the discovery of letters written by the Japanese troops as they spent months in their underground tunnels, and these are the letters which will provide our narration during the course of the film. The picture then flashbacks to the island of Iwo Jima, a few short months before the US invasion, and the Japanese soldiers are already hard at work preparing trenches along the beachfront. One soldier with a shovel in his hand is Saigo (Japanese boy band star Kazunari Ninomiya), and when he begins lamenting his lot a little too loudly he soon finds himself being beaten by stern disciplinarian Lieutenant Fujita (Hiroshi Watanabe). Fortunately for him, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is walking past as this punishment is being administered, and he puts a stop to it, reminding Fujita that an army with such depleted resources shouldn’t be in the business of crippling their own men.

Kuribayashi has been shipped to Iwo Jima by his superiors in order to co-ordinate the Japanese defence of this tactically crucial island, but it’s clear from the start he is fighting a losing battle. The army at his disposal lacks both the sufficient manpower and firepower to deal with the onslaught ahead of them, and many of their troops are suffering from dysentery with a lack of drinking water making life increasingly difficult. After a survey of the island, Kuribayashi tries to come up with a different tactical approach, ordering the troops to stop working on the trenches and to instead start constructing a series of tunnels inside Mt. Suribachi from which they will they will employ the element of surprise against the Americans. A radio announcement reminds the soldiers that they must fight for their country’s pride at any price, but none of the Japanese expect to survive the forthcoming battle. There is much discussion about the merits of dying with honour, but the reality of the situation is hard to bear for many of the younger soldiers, with Saigo sarcastically referring to a colleague who died of “honourable dysentery”.

This is unusual territory for the war picture, placing us side-by-side with troops whose death looms large on the horizon, and it’s this angle which gives
Letters From Iwo Jima the sense of weight and purpose which Flags of Our Fathers lacked. Few films in this genre have created such a sense of what it is to be utterly defeated, and to know that only the end remains. Eastwood’s direction plays on the claustrophobia of the situation, with much of the action taking place inside the dimly-lit tunnels to which the soldiers were confined, and the slow pacing successfully conveys the monotony of waiting for the shooting to start, with a feeling of foreboding gradually growing as the picture progresses. Letters From Iwo Jima contains less action than Flags of Our Fathers did, but it cuts deeper, with the isolated bursts of violence packing more of a punch than the first film’s widespread scenes of carnage. A Japanese private opens a hatch only to be engulfed by an American flamethrower, and another chastises his colleague for sitting around before realising his face has been blown away during an air assault; but the most shocking scene of violence in Letters From Iwo Jima is self-inflicted. With their fortunes looking increasingly bleak, a group of soldiers decide to take their own lives before the Americans have the chance to. Each of them holds a grenade to their chest and screams “Banzai!” before exploding to smithereens. It’s an extraordinarily powerful sequence.

Letters From Iwo Jima’s Japanese-language screenplay has been written by Iris Yamashita in conjunction with Eastwood’s regular collaborator Paul Haggis, and their work mostly hits the right notes, but they resort to unilluminating flashbacks which don’t add a great deal to the picture and only pull us out of the tense and compelling central drama. The central characterisations don’t stray too far from the established template for this kind of film either; Kuribayashi is the wise and humane leader, Fujita is his loyal and patriotic aide, and Saigo is the young innocent whose eyes are opened to the horror of war. It’s to the actors’ credit that they are able to flesh out the characters beyond these clichéd types with strong and authentic performances, but Shidô Nakamura’s Lieutenant Ito is a jarringly one-dimensional figure; a crazed fanatic who races out into the open, laden with mines, to single-handedly take down an enemy tank.

There has been much talk of
Letters From Iwo Jima attempting to humanise the notoriously sadistic Japanese soldiers, and there are a few moments when it feels like the film is stretching to highlight their “the enemy are people too” slant instead of letting it develop naturally. One scene sees Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) - a famous Olympic gold medallist who fought and died at Iwo Jima - encountering a wounded enemy soldier and, instead of interrogating or killing him, he offers the American the last of their morphine supply and chats with him about horses. That scene feels like pandering, but it isn’t such a bad misstep until it is compared to a later scene which sees a couple of American soldiers shooting their own hostages in cold blood. Such a bald juxtaposition is a disappointingly trite element which feels out of place in an otherwise well-balanced picture.

Whatever the merits and flaws of
Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima there’s no question that the two films represent a remarkable directorial achievement from Eastwood. The overall sense one gets from this double-bill is the sheer pointlessness and waste of even a justified war, and while that isn’t a new notion among films in this genre, the grace and intelligence which Eastwood brings to this film has brought it home with startling clarity. Flags of Our Fathers ultimately felt like just another war film, but Letters From Iwo Jima has shown us the dignity and valour of those on the wrong side of a calamitous loss, and in that respect Eastwood has become the first director in almost a decade to give us something like a new perspective on the conflict.