Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima are opposite sides of the same currency that form an inseparable epic narrative correlating to the deeply personal experiences of soldiers on both sides of the Japanese/American fight during World War II. By putting Letters in Japanese with English subtitles, Eastwood contains the reflexive energy and sincerity of second-generation Japanese-American Iris Yamashita’s convincing debut script.
Yamashita uses a literary conceit that the story-within-the-story is informed by the discovery of a bag of letters buried on Iwo Jima by Japanese soldiers. Clint Eastwood’s inspiration for the film came from a book of letters (Picture Letters From Commander In Chief) written by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi to his family during the 1920’s and ‘30s when he lived in the U.S. serving as an envoy.
General Kuribayashi was later sent to take over command of battle preparations on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima where the Japanese government sent their forces with the caveat that they would not come back. Eastwood has made the point that “this is not something you could tell an American [soldier] with a straight face.” The director emphasizes the attitudes and fears of the Japanese soldiers fighting against terrible odds for a death that will fulfill their duty.
Ken Watanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha) moors the story as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi whose generous empathy for his men and impromptu defense strategy transforms a predicted five-day battle into a 40-day clash. Watanabe is a master of poignancy, and the aristocratic focus of his gaze supports the loyalty he inspires in his soldiers who dig more than 18 miles of tunnels, 5,000 caves and untold numbers of pillboxes in the island’s black sand.
Visually, the movie seems darker even than the monochromatic blue/gray color design used in Flags of Our Fathers. The limited color palette has a hypnotic effect of drawing the viewer into the gloomy mindset of the same soldiers that we rooted against while watching Flags.
The moodiness of the visuals serves to restrain the potentially numbing effect of the often-traumatic violence onscreen. In one of Eastwood’s most effective use of staging, a battalion of exhausted soldiers hides in a tunnel beneath the defeated ground of Mount Suribachi. Sworn to defend the region to their deaths, the soldiers begin, one by one, pulling the pins from their grenades and hitting the bomb against their helmets before blowing themselves up. It’s a surreal scene, and one that might prove unwatchable were it not for the desaturated color that lends a filter of distance from the sad reality of men joining in shared suicides.
Eastwood performed the year’s most ambitious and original cinematic feat in making a pair of companion films about the significance of the battle at Iwo Jima and the ways in which the Japanese and American governments treated that pivotal engagement. The films are masterpieces of modern cinema, filled with cinematic poetry of bright, medium and dark images, that express Clint Eastwood’s talent as a director to work on a large-scale narrative.
These are not perfect movies by any means. They are films that you are lucky to watch once in your life on big screens, before digesting them as artistic representations of a battle that has often been misrepresented. There is truth in these movies, but Eastwood isn’t interested in sanctifying veracity for its own sake. He wants us to recognize the moral fabric that we all share regardless of our loyalities. He wants equality.
Letters from Iwo Jima screens Sat., Dec. 30 at 5 p.m. at the MACC’s Castle Theater as part of the FirstLight film festival. MTW