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An Inaccessible Island

February 13, 2007

I was curiously unmoved by Letters from Iwo Jima.

I went in fully expecting–wanting, really–to be awed by the power of Clint Eastwood’s vision. The conceit is certainly ingenious: turn a legendary American victory on its head by showing it exclusively from the perspective of the losers.

But he makes a wrong move right from the start. Rather than immediately jumping into the wartime action on Iwo Jima, he pans across the remaining detritus of the battle in 2007. A team of Japanese archaeologists, in white jumpsuits, with high-powered flashlights, makes their way into a bunker–a fancy word for a cave really, since neither the floors, walls nor ceilings end in smooth right angles–to search for artifacts. They come upon a cloth sack buried in the dirt. Before they open the bag, the screen fades out, and the action moves to Iwo Jima’s south-facing beach in early 1945.

One can’t help but think of the opening of Saving Private Ryan, when Spielberg showed us Arlington Cemetery in 1998. As with Saving Private Ryan, the attempt to relate the sacrifices of World War II to present day is a mistake. The contemporary scenes only distanced me from the action, turning characters into moving statues rather than flesh and blood, at least during the early going.

The wartime action on the island opens with a line of grunts digging trenches on a rocky beach. The sky, the water, the uniforms, even the skin tones are in shades of gray; following Spielberg’s example, Eastwood and his cinematographer, long-time collaborator Tom Stern, have bleached the filmstock to the point that it is nearly black-and-white. Better, I suppose, to contrast with the blood that will be spilled later.

The first soldier we meet is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a boy-faced pipsqueak who reminded me of Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) from Dazed and Confused. His letter to his wife serves as narration to the opening of the scene: “Hanako, we soldiers dig. We dig all day. This is the hole we will fight in… Hanako, am I digging my own grave?” Whether the simplicity of the syntax comes off as poetic or stilted depends on the viewer.

Nonetheless, his skepticism toward the battle to come is endearing. In his simple way, pining for his pregnant wife and his shuttered bakery, he sees through the idiocy of a military strategy that would subject thousands of soldiers to near-certain death.

The next central character we meet is General Tadamichi Kurabayashi (Ken Watanabe) who is sent to the island to command the troops during their final stand. He is the model of noble sacrifice for one’s country; he insists on touring the island on foot and reconfiguring the defenses to create the optimal chance for a highly unlikely victory. Because Watanabe is such a charismatic actor, he’s a pleasure to watch, but he’s too perfect to be of this realm: he is not only the noblest of the soldiers, he is the smartest, the kindest and the wisest. He’s more an archtype than a genuine human personality.

The same goes for the rest of the cast, save Saigo. There’s Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a suave, handsome champion equestrian and loyal tank commander who requested an assignment on the island to serve under Kuribayashi, even though he’s never met him. There’s Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former secret police with a heart of gold–he was booted from the force for his unwillingness to shoot a dog. Blending into the background are a series of officers, each more conniving and fatally rigid in their thinking than the rest. For a film with a color scheme in myriad shades of grey, the characters are surprisingly black and white.

The screenplay, by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis and adapted from a collection of letters by the real-life Kurabayashi, shares many of the problems that marred the overrated script for Crash. Haggis seems so obsessed with turning his characters into symbols that he forgets to make them believable characters in the first place. And a symbol without credible human contours is nothing more than a cliche. The scenes, too, are stock: soldiers commiserating over the miserable food, General K jarring with groupthink officers, Saigo’s shrill supervising officer berating him for being such a useless soldier.

If Saigo is the one character who we identify with, it’s more an accident of genre than a triumph of creative imagination. As in most war films, the weakest soldier is the most relatable, because civilian spectators can more easily imagine themselves cowering in the face of gunfire than standing up to it. As a Westerner, it was also easier to identify with his bewilderment over fighting a losing battle than it was to identify with the officers who would rather kill themselves than be captured.

While the characters aren’t developed much beyond archtypes, we do feel for them when they are first strafed by American bombers. It’s clear from the moment they are first attacked by air–and they have no air support to help them, and no anti-aircraft weapons to fight back with–that theirs is a mission of certain doom. When they look out over the ridge to see scores, if not hundreds, of ships and untold thousands of soldiers storming the beach, the futility of their cause is only magnified. It’s no coincidence that Saigo is the first soldier to see the American invasion force.

The relationship between the American invaders and the Japanese defenders elegantly turns the very concept of war into a no-win proposition. We care enough about the Japanese characters that we don’t want them to die, but for them to survive, they have to kill American soldiers, and we don’t want that either.

But because we never come to care about the characters in any meaningful way, their deaths don’t have the impact Eastwood wants them to. Worse, the action is so repetitive–hide in a bunker, run through an unprotected field under heavy fire, take refuge in another bunker, and repeat–that it becomes boring. One of the problems is that Letters from Iwo Jima necessarily inverts the principle of escalating action. As the numbers of Japanese soldiers dwindle, and the Americans take more territory, the battles become smaller, not bigger. There’s a way to make the shrinking of war tragic, but it requires characters who are human enough for us to be moved.

As the battle slogs towards it inevitable conclusion, Haggis and Yamashita provide us with moments of levity and humanity, but most struck me as artificial. Only one sticks with me now, not quite a week after seeing the movie: the first instance of ritual suicide. Following their commander’s orders, each soldier, one by one, pulls a grenade from his belt, pulls the pin, bangs it on his head and then holds it to his chest. The result is as shocking as it is gruesome.

In showing World War II from the Japanese perspective, the film is aiming, among other things, to educate us about the psychology of Japanese honor, which considers capture a fate worse than death. “We will defend this island until every last soldier is dead,” Kuribayashi tells his men. But there are surely gradations in the concept of ritual suicide, and Letters communicates those distinctions intellectually if not emotionally. For some, it seems that the concept of ritual suicide is little more than cowardice in disguise, a way to kill yourself instantly to avoid the potential horror of slow death on the battlefield. For others, it’s a form of surrender: since you’re going to die eventually, you might as well do it in the place and time of your choosing. For still others, it’s a matter of following orders, and it’s laced with regret, sadness, anger and doubt. For only a few, the film claims, it is truly an act of honor, a deed of last resort when you are only moments away from capture and have done everything you can to kill every possible enemy soldier.

There’s a lot of interesting territory to explore here, but the first instance of ritual suicide is so shocking that it overshadowed each suicide that followed. If Eastwood had shown us soldiers blowing themselves up with grenades last, not first, the escalation of horror would have made each suicide count in the way Eastwood wants it to.

But there may be a more elemental problem. I simply found the concept of killing yourself to avoid capture so alien that I could never empathize with it. I suspect Eastwood, Haggis and even Yamashita don’t fully understand it either. They never let us get inside the heads of their characters fully enough to allow us to truly understand why these men, some of whom are highly educated, would follow such a nihilistic code.

What makes Siago so relatable to a Western audience is also what makes Letters from Iwo Jima’s tragedy so inaccessible. Like us, Siago is confused by the notion of fighting a futile battle against an unstoppable force and even more perplexed by the idea of suicide as the highest form of honor. He doesn’t care about the glory of the homeland, or the pride of having died in battle, he just wants to return to his pregnant wife and his bakery. His lack of understanding is our lack of understanding; just as he never attempts to take his own life, we never understand why somebody would want to. For a film where the intended emotional impact relies on the viewer feeling the tragedy of honorable suicide, that’s a major failing.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    February 13, 2007 11:38 pm

    i’m fairly certain you’re the only critic to ever reference dazed and confused in a review of letters. anywho, the present day bookends are really the least of letter’s problems, most of which you’ve spelled out far more eloquently than I ever could. But the reason the present day scenes in private ryan were much more effective (or at the very least, less distancing) is that there was both a fairly seamless segue from the present day to d-day when the older gentlemen presumed to be tom hanks morphs into current tom hanks, but also more importantly, the shocking level of violence that quickly ensues cant help but draw you in to the story, even before you’ve been introduced to the characters. And the ending current day sequence is also crucial because it drives home the level of survivor’s guilt that private ryan (or any other d-day survivor) must experince, while perhaps even questioning the morality of sacrificing an entire unit in order to save one soldier.

  2. February 14, 2007 2:33 pm

    I fully agree with you on this. Flags of Our Fathers was better.

  3. bren permalink
    February 28, 2007 2:06 pm

    Just saw the movie this past weekend… I think I’d like to hang out w/ Ken Watanabe someday, he seems like a cool guy…then watch him commit ritual suicide… when’s the next Japanese ritual suicide hero that’ he play coming out? August?

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