Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-5; L- 4; S/N-1. Running time: 2 hours 21 min.

Precious treasure remains in a wise man’s
dwelling, but a foolish man devours it.
Proverbs 21:21

Honor all men. Love the brotherhood.
Fear God. Honor the emperor.
1 Peter 2:17

Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
James 4:14

Letters From Iwo Jima

Those who complained that the Japanese troops were the “faceless enemy” in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers should be more than gratified by this companion film. When the two films are seen back-to-back they will provide the finest coverage of any battle ever filmed. Apparently while planning for his film covering the American side of the bloody battle of Iwo Jima (and its aftermath), Mr. Eastwood commissioned Japanese-American writer Iris Yamashita to write a script based on the book penned by the man who perished while commanding the Japanese forces on the island, Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s Picture Letters From Commander in Chief. This being her first screenplay, Ms. Yamashita was assisted by veteran writer Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, casino Royale) Together they have produced one of the most moving tributes to the fallen soldiers of a former enemy ever to grace the screen.

Similar to reading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, we have to reverse our perspective to enter into the film by identifying with men who are killing our soldiers and regarding the G.I.s who charge at them as “the enemy.” That this happens as we watch the film can be attributed to the skills of those behind and in front of the camera. Of the latter only Ken Watanabe will be somewhat familiar, at least to those who saw Batman Begins or The Last Samurai. Here, as General Kuribayashi, newly arrived to take charge of the island’s defenses, he is the picture of a dignified man forced to contend with his own rebellious junior officers as well as the overwhelming forces of the invaders. Having spent an agreeable time if the U.S. he admires the enemy, which his fellow officers look upon as a weakness.

The film is book-ended by scenes of a Japanese team of archaeologists digging in one of the extensive caves that General Kuribayashi had ordered, much to the consternation of such junior officers as Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), who thought that all efforts should be directed to fortifying the beaches. The archaeologists discover a cache of letters, and it is these unsent letters, as well as many that did get sent back to Japan, that constitute the narrative of the film, as well as revealing the humanity of those whom we Americans have been taught were ruthless fanatics. Along with the General, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) provides our glimpse into the upper ranks, the nobleman having brought his prize horse to the island. The Baron had been an equestrian at the 1932 Olympics, so that like the commander, whose friend he quickly becomes, he treasures his time spent in the U.S. and the friends he had made, among them movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. This latter tidbit the Baron shares during one of the many moments of grace in the film—when a wounded G.I. is dragged into a cave for interrogation, the Baron forbids his men from killing the soldier, instead ordering the use of some of their precious medicine to ease the man’s pain.

The perspective of the foot soldier is provided by Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and his comrades, who complain about their digging trenches at the beach. When he is overheard saying that he would like to give the island to the Americans, his officer starts to beat him and his buddy. Only the intervention of the just-arrived General Kuribayashi stops this. The General will serve as savior to Saigo another time when an officer is about to decapitate him and two friends for their alleged desertion. (The general later tells the soldier that such things come in threes, and sure enough, there is a third incident.) We also get to know a newly dispatched soldier named Shimizu (Ryo Kase), who keeps to himself because Saigo and his friends suspect that he is a member of the military police sent to spy on the troops. We learn much later that it was because of a kind act of grace that he was demoted and sent off to die defending the island.

Mr. Eastwood’s film should serve to safe guard us against the all too natural tendency to demonize our enemies. Christians should not require this, but we do, as witness what is going on today as we contend against a foe who “hates our freedom and everything we stand for.” Everything? The only U.S.-made film that I can think of that does what Mr. Eastwood achieves is Three Kings with the torture scene wherein we are shown why the Iraqi soldier hates Americans so (because an American bomb killed his family). Forming a diptych, Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers show both the horror of war and the humanity of those on both sides who are forced to participate in its barbarity. The use of subtitles and the violence of the battle scenes (though not as great as in the first film) will keep many viewers away, but those who do go will reap many rewards from Mr. Eastwood’s belief that those caught up in the orgy of violence known as war, despite their opposing cultures, are both human, and thus capable not only of great evil, but of good and kindness as well.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) How did you feel at the end of each of the films? What contributed to this?

2) What kind of a person is General Kuribayashi? How does he go against the stream? What happened to the pillboxes on the beach that he allowed as a compromise for his fellow officers opposed to his strategy?

3) What is it that the General most regrets that he failed to do before leaving his wife? How does this detail add to our picture of him? What do the flashbacks to Saido and his wife, Hanako (Nae) add to our understanding of the humanity of the enemy?

4) Compare the traditional (Bushido) way of dealing with the loss of a battle and the General’s: Suicide as opposed to dying while trying to make victory as costly as possible for the enemy. How are both concerned with saving one’s honor?

5) What has Saido and his comrades been taught about the enemy? Compare this to what Americans had been taught about the Japanese. How is it important for leaders to demonize the enemy while training their soldiers and preparing the public for war? What stance have Christians taken during times when their nation is at war? Gone along with the government-induced viewpoint, or offered an alternative view?

6) What moments of grace do you see in the film? (The General’s intervening on behalf of Saido and comrades—how many times? The Baron’s treatment of the captured Sam. Shimizu’s sparing of the life of the pet dog.)

7) What effect on the Japanese soldiers does Sam’s letter from his mother have, with her advice: “Remember what I said to you. Always do what is right, because it is right” ?