Sunday, March 30, 2008

Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is an excellent film. What makes it unusual is the historical context. Made by an American director, Clint Eastwood, it attempts to imagine the battle of Iwo Jima from the standpoint of the Japanese soldiers who were fighting the Americans. In most World War II films made by American filmmakers, the Japanese are portrayed as the Enemy—as brutal, soulless, and anonymously hostile. This film doesn't ask its audience to side with the Japanese, but it does ask them to see the Japanese as human. Told more than sixty years after the battle it dramatizes, Letters from Iwo Jima argues, among other things, that more than enough time has passed since the battle that we can view it for what it was—as a battle in which many men fighting for their countries lost their lives in moments of carnage and terror

The entire film is told from the Japanese point of view. Soldiers speak Japanese. English subtitles translate the dialogue. The only time we see American soldiers is from the perspective of the Japanese, as soldiers advancing towards their hideouts, as soldiers menacing them with gunfire and flame throwers, as wounded or captured soldiers, as corpses. This film isn't really interested in the American perspective—hundreds of other films have given that perspective. Instead, as an act of compassion and imagination and understanding it seeks to view events from the perspective of the Japanese.

Eastwood isn't interested in this film in the underlying causes of the war that Americans and Japanese are fighting against one another. He's simply interested in war, in War, and in the perspective of men who are waiting to fight a battle they know they will lose and in which they fully expect to die. This is in that sense a film about how anyone confronts mortality, and a film about the horrors of war in general.

A key scene in the film comes when a commanding Japanese officer reads a letter he has taken from the pocket of a dead American soldier. Because he can read English, he translates the letter for his men. The letter is from the American GI's mother, and in it she tells him the latest family news and also advises him to "do the right thing . . . because it is right." The soldiers are moved. One of them later talks about how the letter forced him to view the soldier as a human being—the letter he says was like a letter his own mother would write to him. The scene is a bit stagey and contrived, but at the same time it's moving and it makes its point.

Eastwood humanizes the Japanese soldiers in a number of ways. First he shows us their individuality. Some of them have willingly joined the army to fight for their country. Others have been drafted and forced to fight. Some are fully committed soldiers and others are half-hearted patriots. He also shows disagreement among commanding Japanese officers—one in particular, a man who lived for a time in California and had American friends, believes in modern warfare and is constantly thinking about strategy, about how to win the battle despite the odds. Other commanding officers are more traditional. Some commanding officers are bullies who abuse their men.

One of the points of Letters from Iwo Jima must be to encourage awareness and understanding of the differences between the two cultures at war. The film shows several scenes in which Japanese soldiers, convinced the battle is lost, commit suicide so as to die honorably rather than to be captured or forced to suffer defeat. Yet we also see scenes that stress the similarities between the warring nations. The letters from home that the Japanese soldiers value so highly are akin to the letter the commanding officer finds in the pocket of the dead American soldier.

We see one scene in which Japanese soldiers brutally beat and then bayonet a captured American soldier. We see another scene in which two Japanese soldiers who have been taken prisoner are shot down by the GIs assigned to guard them.

Letters from Iwo Jima is a companion film to Flags of Our Fathers, another World War II film directed by Eastwood and made at the same time as this one. Letters from Iwo Jima is the better of the films. Its refusal to be interest in the ideology of war and its insistence on focusing instead on the suffering and brutality of war, most especially on the plights and individual perspectives of the men who are fighting in the war, makes it a truly remarkable film. To describe it as an anti-war film is in fact to underestimate and devalue it. It is much more. It's a film that calls for cultural understanding and appreciation, that argues for the irrationality of war by focusing on the commonalities between the warring sides.

1 comment:

Eamon said...

I haven't seen the film. Sounds interesting.
The only other film I can think of Japanese portrayed with a large dose of sympathy is Hell in the Pacific by director John Boorman.