Review: Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

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Each of his three previous films uniquely American works addressing American issues and ideas, with Letters from Iwo Jima Eastwood took a radical departure, producing a film entirely in a foreign language and with a foreign cast. A considerable risk to take for a mainstream, big-budget production, this bold move found reward in Eastwood’s fourth set of Best Picture/Best Director nominations.

Telling the tales of several different Japanese soldiers and officers fighting to defend the titular island, Letters from Iwo Jima offers the contrasting viewpoint to Flags of Our Fathers, showing the lives of those left to defend the shores of their homeland. Their hopes of victory crushed by constant refusals of requests for reinforcements, these men quietly await their inevitably oncoming deaths.

To represent the Japanese soldiers of World War II in a sympathetic manner is a tough undertaking, the scars of Pearl Harbor far from forgotten, particularly in the annals of Hollywood filmmaking.  Besotted by a jingoistic sense of self-importance, Hollywood has long portrayed American wartime enemies as unquestionably evil and undoubtedly wrong, a characteristic portrayal Eastwood here eschews entirely. This is a film that tells us the reality of warfare: there are no good and bad sides, no valiant defenders of moral right and vile opponents of freedom. There are only the innocent lives destroyed in the conflict, the soldiers misled by ideals of heroism and honourable death. This is no more clearly encapsulated than in a scene wherein one soldier, his face basked in the trademark darkness of Eastwood and Stern’s pairing, comes to the realization that he is no different to an American soldier, the letter found on the dead man’s body from his mother saying much as the same as his own. These men have been pitted against each other by their respective nations, but they are in reality no different.

A similar scene, in which General Kuribayashi — played with a formidable mixture of intellect and ferocity by Ken Watanabe — theoretically discusses the outcome of a Japanese-American war with a US General highlights this same ludicrousness of conflict. The rigidly formal mise-en-scene of their dinner party setting clashes notably with the surrounding scenes in Kuribayashi’s bunker on Iwo Jima, highlighting the absurdity of the fact that these two, once sitting civilly down to dinner with one another, must now fight to the death at their respective nations’ behest. Eastwood shows us this fundamental nonsensicality on all fronts of the battle: the soldiers are no different to the officers; the Japanese no different to the Americans. Letters from Iwo Jima is, in many ways, an apologist war film; it is to its genre what The Searchers, Cheyenne Autumn, or Dances with Wolves were to the western.

Strangely for a war film, Letters from Iwo Jima is disturbingly quiet for much of its running time, the long stretches of silence which lie throughout accentuating the sudden bursts of gunfire and choruses of falling shells. The scenes of intense action are infrequent, though impressively well directed when they do occur, Eastwood favouring the more personal approach of examining the soldiers’ emotions and fears as they await their fate, examining what the knowledge of one’s own oncoming and inevitable death does to a person. These men sit in their makeshift tunnels, consumed in darkness and fear, awaiting their own demise. The quiet tragedy of this is reinforced in the unanimously excellent performances and the simplicity of the recurring musical cue, the only sound to distract us from the deafening silence of death. Composed by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens, the touching lament encapsulates the distressing contradiction between the beauty of this island setting and the hideousness of the acts occurring on it.

Often startlingly gory, the film depicts the mass honour-suicides of entire regiments unflinchingly, not afraid to show in graphic detail the effects of the Japanese army philosophies. Eastwood works with immensely difficult images, bringing a sense of visceral reality to his film and building a considerable argument against the horrors of war. The overriding visual aesthetic is a murky washed out dankness; a dull grey which serves to accentuate the draining monotony of life during wartime. All colour is lost from the screen, mirroring the characters’ complete loss of hope as they descend yet further into the harrowing desolation of their own impending doom. Letters from Iwo Jima focuses more directly on the actual battle itself than its counterpart, though no less a damning indictment of the ills of propaganda for it. Eastwood understands the humanism of his subject matter, and his frequent forays into these characters’ past lives compose rich and complex pictures of who these people are. Saigo, the expectant father stripped of his business by war’s toll; Shimizu, the former military policeman sent to Iwo Jima for the crime of compassion; Kuribayashi, bound by a sense of patriotic duty to fight a war he knows he cannot win: each is a compelling character, the depth in which they are explored only making it all the more painful to watch their inevitably tragic fate play out, the senseless end result of the brainwashing effect which so often accompanies war.

Besotted with heavy emotion, Letters from Iwo Jima is an extraordinarily humanist work, throwing us into the hectic mess of conflict with these immensely relatable characters and leaving us to experience alongside them the crushing fears of death and the knowledge that they will never leave this island alive. Magnificently shot, its tonally appropriate greys as involving as the brilliant reds and oranges of the sunset beauty, this is a film which takes no sides, only laments the morbid reality of humanity’s inane contradictions.

[notification type=”star”]88/100 – Besotted with heavy emotion, Letters from Iwo Jima is an extraordinarily humanist work, throwing us into the hectic mess of conflict with these immensely relatable characters and leaving us to experience alongside them the crushing fears of death and the knowledge that they will never leave this island alive.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.