Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

I finally got to see this Oscar nominated film. I must say, out of the nominees for best picture, I feel this should have won (though I still have not seen two of them). This is easily one of the best war movies I have seen in a long time. It tells the story of that historic battle from the Japanese perspective, and Clint Eastwood crafts an amazing piece about the soldiers themselves. It is much better than his best picture winning Million Dollar Baby.

Letters is not so much a movie about the battle itself, but about the soldiers. The movie delves deeply into developing every character, and exploring the trials that they must endure. Almost immediately you fall in love with them all. The movie takes it content from a collection of letters written by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of the Japanese resistance. The fact that the stories came from someone who was actually there just adds to the power of the movie. The story follows Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who is unwillingly drafted into the army, Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a military police officer who was demoted because of his unwillingness to follow unjust orders, and Kuribayashi himself, played by Ken Watanabi (famous for his role in The Last Samurai). All of these characters, and many more lay the foundation of what the movie is really about.

At first it was difficult to accept the invading American soldiers as the enemies, but the movie is crafted so you truly sympathies with the Japanese soldiers. They struggle to deal with an impossible situation. The Imperial army repeatedly refuses their requests for re-enforcements and more equipment. The government lies to them, and even sends a letter saying that they hope the soldiers die with honor. There is no delusion (except possibly for Kuribayashi) that they can actually be victorious. One of the commanding officers in an attempt to rally the troops said "Every day we fight them off here, is one more day that our children can play in freedom". They were all fighting for the same thing as the Allies

The fundamental theme is that there is really no difference between the soldiers on either side. In one scene, the Japanese capture an American soldier, and Baron Nishi (played by Tsuyoshi Ihara) shows him kindness, indicating to his soldiers that the enemy is not actually evil. Every character must wrestle with their own fears and conceptions, while still trying to follow their duty to their homeland. These could easily be soldiers in any army in any war, and it would by powerful. It just works so well here being a companion to Clint Eastwood's earlier release of Flags of Our Fathers- which tells the same story from the American perspective.

There are only a few drawbacks to Letters. There were some scenes in which Nishi spent time before the war in America. These functioned as a half-hearted way to develop his character (which never really worked), and a lazy way to show American and Japanese relations prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. One woman asks him "What would you do if Japan and America went to war?" That seemed a tad bit too obvious for me. These scenes simply added length to a movie that I was ready to be over about fifteen minutes before it was.

This is of course a war movie, so it features some battle sequences, but not many. Most of the movie takes place in the caves with the Japanese soldiers. This is a tactic that is not done very often, but done very well. It doesn't beat you over the head with the war, but focuses more on the soldiers themselves. In Letters from Iwo Jima Eastwood created an emotional and nearly flawless movie.


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