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Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

This essay contains spoilers. Please don’t continue unless you want to know key details about the film.



The Historical Setting

The Film

Historical Accuracy


Pre-Release Announcements

Cast and Crew

Directed ByClint Eastwood
Ken WatanabeGeneral Tadamichi Kuribayashi
Kazunari NinomiyaSaigo
Tsuyoshi IharaBaron Nishi
Ryo KaseShimizu
Shido NakamuraLieutenant Ito
Hiroshi WatanabeLieutenant Fujita
Takumi BandoCaptain Tanida
Yuki MatsuzakiNozaki
Takashi YamaguchiKashiwara
Eijiro OzakiLieutenant Okubo
Nae YuukiHanako (As Nae)
Nobumasa SakagamiAdmiral Ohsugi
Akiko ShimaLead Woman
Lucas ElliottSam
Sonny SaitoMedic Endo
Steve Santa SekiyoshiKanda
Hiro AbeLt. Colonel Oiso
Toshiya AgataCaptain Iwasaki
Yoshi IshiiPrivate Yamazaki
Toshi TodaColonel Adachi
Ken KenseiMaj. General Hayashi
Ikuma AndoOzawa
Masashi NagadoiAdmiral Ichimaru
Mark MosesAmerican Officer
Roxanne HartOfficer's Wife
Yoshio IizukaTired Soldier
MitsuSuicide Soldier
Takuji KuramotoOno
Koji WadaHashimoto
Akira KanedaJapanese Soldier #1
Shoji HattoriJapanese Soldier #2
Mark Tadashi TakahashiJapanese Soldier #3
Mitsuyuki OishiJapanese Soldier #4
Evan EllingsonKid Marine
Morosawa KazuIto's Guard
Masayuki YonezawaIto's Soldier
Hiroshi Tom TanakaHopeless Soldier
Mathew BotuchisAmerican Marine
Yukari BlackMother
Daisuke NagashimaPrisoner
Kirk EnochsMarine Officer
Ryan KelleyMarine #2
Jonathan Oliver SesslerMarine #3
Michael LawsonMarine #4
Taishi MizunoCave Soldier #1
Daisuke TsujiCave Soldier #2
Yoshi AndoExcavator #1
Yutaka TakeuchiExcavator #2
Tsuguo MizunoLead Excavator
Mark OfujiKuribayashi's Guard
Hallock BealsMarine At Clearing
Ryan CarnesMarine At Clearing
Jeremy GlazerMarine Lieutenant
Ryoya KatsuyamaBoy
Masashi OdateCook
London KimOkubo's Soldier
Dick ‘Skip' EvansPilot #1
Wanliss E. ArmstrongPilot #2
Directed ByClint Eastwood
Iris Yamashita(Screenplay)
Iris Yamashita(Story)
Paul Haggis(Story)
Tadamichi Kuribayashiauthor, "Picture Letters From Commander In Chief"
Tsuyoko YoshidoBook Editor
Clint EastwoodProducer
Paul HaggisExecutive Producer
Robert LorenzProducer
Steven SpielbergProducer
Original MusicClint Eastwood
CinematographTom Stern

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“Those who tell the stories rule society.” — Plato

In the study of World War II, it’s only natural that each participant country focuses on the heroics of their own countrymen. England celebrates the year they stood alone against Nazism, Russia the stand in Stalingrad, and the United States mourns Pearl Harbor.

Less obvious is the perception of the war among the Axis powers. The Austrians and Germans, shocked and humbled by the Holocaust, made payments to the survivors and banned the Nazi Party and its literature. Hungary, Romania and East Germany, controlled by Stalin and his successors, paid large sums in cash to the Soviet Union and many of their citizens were held for over a decade. Children learn about Hitler, and there is a consciousness of sorts of the terrible and horrific events of the Nazi Era.

Less clear is the reaction of Japan to the war. With the huge area over which the battles were fought, and the immediate destruction at home, it was easier for Japan to focus on rebuilding and not on the actions of her soldiers in China and the Pacific. Japan didn’t make payments to any of the nations she occupied; the Nanjing Massacre isn’t in their history books; children learn about the B-29 bombings, the Atomic Bombs, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men on New Guinea. But the essential nature of the war and the militaristic government that used its citizens as slaves to start a war to dominate Asia for the benefit of a very few is not covered.

Many Japanese, especially those that travel abroad, have understood the complex issues surrounding the Japanese occupation of Asia, and there is a lot of tension between Japanese rightists and those who want a full public accounting of what happened.

Not that Japan is alone in this. Just as the German-Russian Eastern European conflict was a death match between two powerful opponents, the Pacific War was a bitter racial struggle between the United States and Japan. Atrocities on both sides were so commonplace that they were an accepted part of war. Medics could not wear identification or they would be shot; prisoners were tortured and executed on both sides. Marines taking prisoners on most islands could not be sure if the Japanese soldier was surrendering or on a suicide mission, so to be safe, many shot everyone down. This ugliness rarely translates into an effective screen portrayal. Films made during the war years demonized the enemy and hero-worshipped the warriors. Later films, from the 1950s on, dealt with the psychological impact of war but rarely dealt with accurate portrayals of the violence. It wasn’t until the 1990s that war films began to show intensely realistic depictions of violence.

Eastwood’s two films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, fall somewhere between hero-worship and nihilistic/realistic violence; it has elements of both. What makes it unique is that it’s the first American film I can think of that completely depicts an enemy of the United States during wartime in their own language (not including depictions of Civil War confederates.)

The problem with Letters from Iwo Jima is one of dramatic necessity. In order to make the story palatable, the characters must be made sympathetic to the audience. The racism of the Pacific War is subdued; alluded to, but not fully explored. This provides for complex, emotionally rich characters, but this does two things: it makes heroes out of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi and his men, and it takes away their reason for such ardent defense of Iwo Jima: preventing America from landing in the Japanese Home Islands.

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Historical Setting

The island Iwo Jima is approximately 750 miles from Japan. In 1944, as the B-29 campaign was gaining strength; the Japanese used it as a fighter base and radar station. Because of its geographic location and the availability of American amphibious units between the invasion of the Philippines and the planned invasion of Okinawa, the decision was made to acquiesce to the US Army Air Force’s request to neutralize the island and turn it into a forward air base for the United States.

Premier Hideki Tojo ordered Tadamichi Kuribayashi to take command of Iwo Jima on June 8, 1944. It’s likely that Kuribayashi knew that this would be his final command. He had argued against attacking the United States, spending 1928-1930 in Washington, DC as the deputy naval attaché. He was well aware of the massive industrial capabilities of the United States. He was partially aware of the massive losses in ships; aircraft and personnel the Japanese armed forces had endured up to that point.

Kuribayashi’s predecessor on Iwo Jima, Lieutenant General Hideyoshi Obata, had planned for a traditional beach defense and had installed his artillery and machine guns in trenches there. Kuribayashi realized, as did the Japanese on Peleliu, that the overwhelming American superiority in machines and men would make any battle an inevitable defeat for the Japanese. But they longer they held out, the longer the invasion of the Home Islands would be put off. The High Command, chronically underestimating the American unity and resolve after Pearl Harbor, believed that if enough casualties could be inflicted, the Americans would sue for peace. Kuribayashi ordered his men to dig. By the time the Americans landed a network of tunnels and caves eleven miles long (seventeen miles of tunnels were planned) connected bunkers and caves all over the island. The Japanese found the volcanic ash made superior concrete. The tunnels were hot because of the volcanic activity, and they were poorly ventilated and lit. They had multiple exits to prevent men being trapped in cave-ins or attack. The civilians were evacuated in late 1944. Kuribayashi, reinforced by Army tanks and Rikusentai Special Naval Landing Forces and units from nearby Chichi Jima despite the American Navy submarines sinking many transports, brought Iwo Jima’s strength up to 21,000 men.

As the Americans stepped up bombings throughout December 1944 and January 1945, the island was denuded of vegetation and most of the Japanese went underground. The hundreds of anti-aircraft guns on Iwo encountered by USAAF bomber pilots led them to nickname it “Mount Sunavabitchi.”Kuribayashi received word on February 13 from his scout planes that a large American force of 170 ships had left Saipan. Final preparations were made, and Kuribayashi extorted his men to kill ten Americans for every one of their own lives.

The Japanese had 361 artillery pieces of 75 mm or larger caliber, a dozen 320 mm mortars, sixty-five medium (150 mm) and light (81 mm) mortars, 33 naval guns 80 mm or larger, and 94 anti-aircraft guns 75 mm or larger. In addition to this formidable array of large caliber guns, the Iwo Jima defenses could boast of more than two hundred 20 mm and 25 mm antiaircraft guns and sixty-nine 37 mm and 47 mm antitank guns. The fire power of the artillery was further supplemented with a variety of rockets varying from an eight-inch type that weighed 90 kg and could travel 2-3 km, to a giant 250 kg projectile that had a range of more than 7 km. Altogether, 70 rocket guns and their crews reached Iwo Jima. The Americans had 16-inch heavy guns on their battleships, and even the destroyers had five to ten 5-inch guns. All the ships had 40mm guns that could be employed either in ground fire or against aircraft.

The landing on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, was preceded by three days of heavy caliber fire from the American battleships and cruisers, but the weight of fire was reduced by sending most of the fast battleships to bombard targets in Japan itself, a political counterpart to the emerging B-29 campaign. Older, slower battleships, with lighter fourteen-inch guns, and heavy cruisers with eight-inch guns, were substituted for the original plan of sixteen-inch gun battleships. The size of the fleet and the American dominance in air power precluded and reinforcements from reaching Kuribayashi.

Kuribayashi’s battle plan was controversial, even among his own men. He allowed the Americans to land on the beach and build up a sizeable force. With their vehicles stuck in the fine black sand, and more coming ashore, the beach was crowded with men and machines an hour into the landing. That’s when the Japanese guns opened up; creating carnage that was unprecedented among the landing forces in the Pacific. The token Japanese forces on the beach were extinguished in the first few hours, and the island was cut in half by the American Marines on the first day. But the Americans’ gains were not complete; the Japanese tunnel network allowed them to move from location to location, and to reactivate positions that the Americans had thought were secure.

Both sides employed artillery extensively, mercilessly pounding the island. By February 23, Mount Suribachi had fallen except for sporadic sniping and isolated groups. The American flag was raised on the volcano that day. The rest of the island took much longer. Using what would later be called “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics, tanks, TNT, flamethrowers and artillery was used to systematically reduce the Japanese positions. The Marines learned to drop smoke into the tunnels and caves and blast all the ports the smoke came out of.The airfield was secured on February 25; Motoyama Village fell on February 28. The B-29 “Dinah Might” landed on Iwo Jima on March 4, the airfield still under fire from the Japanese.The 5th Division advanced up the west coast, encountering heavy resistance, and the 4th Division advanced up the other. The 3rd Division was called in as reserve. On March 15 Kuribayashi had lost contact with all but 900 of his men. Half were dead or missing by the next day. Kuribayashi ordered the regimental colors burned. While the island was declared secure on March 16, Kuribayashi’s last order to his men on March 17:

1. The battle situation came to the last moment.

2. I want my surviving officers and men to go out and attack the enemy tonight.

3. Each troop! Go out simultaneously at midnight and attack the enemy until the last. You all have devoted yourself to His Majesty, the Emperor. Don’t think of yourself.

4. I am always at the head of you all.

To the Imperial Army General Headquarters, Kuribayashi radioed his apologies to the Emperor and a poem via Chichi Jima:

My body shall not decay in the field
Unless we are avenged;
I will be born seven more times again
To take up arms against the foe.
My only concern is
Our country in the future
When weeds cover here

On March 21, Kuribayashi radioed Chichi Jima again:

They [the Americans] advised us to surrender by a loudspeaker, but we only laughed at this childish trick and did not set ourselves against them.

That same day, Kuribayashi was promoted to full General, the Naval Officer in charge of the Rikusentai, and Ichimaru to Vice Admiral, and tank commander Nishi to full Colonel. All of the promotions were considered to be posthumous.

On March 26, as the Marine divisions were officially relieved by the United States Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment, some 300 surviving Japanese attacked the Northern airfield at 0515 hours, slashing through tents and killing some men in their sleep. Many were armed with captured American weapons, and the fighting was intense and close. Marines, Army, United States Army Air Force pilots, and Seabees all grabbed weapons and fought off the attack, which penetrated to the Army Hospital. Kuribayashi was rumored to have organized and led the attack. He died in the assault or committed suicide soon after. Some accounts say he died earlier on March 23 in his underground command bunker. His body was never found.The Battle of Iwo Jima was the largest all-Marine amphibious force in World War II (Okinawa was a larger amphibious invasion, but was a combined Army-Navy-Marine operation) and one of the few where American casualties exceeded the Japanese (26,000 American dead and wounded compared to 18,000 Japanese dead, 2,000 missing, and 1,083 prisoners of war.) One in three Americans who fought on Iwo Jima were casualties. The entire Japanese garrison was annihilated.

Kuribayashi upset the Allies’ timetable by approximately two weeks, delaying the invasion of Okinawa to April 1.

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The Film

Eastwood’s film is at once less audacious than Flags of Our Fathers, and more linear. In my review of Flags, the major problem I had with the film was its penchant for flashbacks, jumping back and forth through time, leaving the audience confused as to which character we focusing on and why. Letters has no such problem, being a straight linear story from Kuribayashi’s arrival on Iwo Jima to his self-inflicted death at the end of the battle.

This leaves us with a long, well made, traditional World War II movie in Japanese. I doubt the high critical praise for the film, and its highly touted Oscar chances, would be considered if the film was in English. As with Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day and other noted films, the use of foreign language adds an element of realism to the movie. However, with Letters of Iwo Jima, the Japanese language may be hard for American audiences to appreciate. Almost three hours of subtitles left several of my party with headaches and exhaustion. While I don’t speak Japanese, I am familiar with many Japanese military terms, and the Japanese speakers in the audience and I deemed the translation accurate.

Portraying the Japanese garrison from June 1944 until the end of February 1945, Letters from Iwo Jima focuses on several real and fictional characters. I’m at the point in my study of World War II where I need to learn Japanese in order to progress, but I’m not aware of any English-Language books that focus on the Japanese on Iwo Jima. The film is based on the oddly translated title “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” by Kuribayashi himself, edited by Tsuyoko Yoshido.

Spoilers from this point forward.

From the beginning, the communications of the doomed Japanese garrison, with each other and to their loved ones, is the focus of the film. It opens with an overview of the island circa 2005, with rusting tanks, guns, and bunker debris. A Japanese team is excavating the caves, and someone finds something:important. The whole team rushes over to look.

Fade in on June 1944, and Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) lands on Iwo Jima. Greeted by his subordinates, who have been waiting by the airfield for hours, he immediately makes a reconnoiter of the entire island. While on tour he encounters a Captain beating two enlisted men for complaining about the island’s conditions. One of the men is a composite fictional character named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) who is the film’s major supporting character. A baker drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army, he wants nothing more to go home to his wife and child. He endears himself to his men by ordering the beatings to stop, and orders the construction of the beach defenses stopped.

Coming to the conclusion that the beach is conceded to any landings, Kuribayashi orders his men to dig into the volcanic island. One man dies of dysentery, contracted form the communal living and the poor water quality. Replacements begin to arrive. Shimizu is a disgraced Kempeitai (military police) academy graduate who failed to appropriately terrorize his civilian charges, and was discharged and sent to Iwo Jima. Also arriving is the celebrity Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) commander of the 26th Tank Regiment. He also is able to bring his horse, as he is a famous high jumper, who won medals in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. They dig and train for the coming battle. Kuribayashi evacuates the civilians and over the objections of his officers (except Nishi) he plans for a protracted battle below ground.

Suspecting that Shimizu is sent there to spy on them, Saigo and his best friend shun him. They fig tunnels and soon are under constant air attack. B-24s and Corsairs attack the island at will, driving the soldiers underground and destroying the installations above ground. Saigo narrowly avoids death in an air attack, finds a man dead in a grotesque position. Nishi finds his horse dying in the devastated corral.The shelling abated for the moment, Saigo’s sadistic captain orders him to dump the battalion latrine outside. The Captain threatens execution if he doesn’t bring back the latrine intact. Saigo emerges to see a huge American fleet, four or five times the size of the armada the Japanese rank and file were expecting. Again he narrowly avoids death when the American Navy opens fire, a small shell lands next to him and fails to detonate.

Once again underground, Saigo rejoins his battalion while Kuribayashi activates his plan. With the American trucks and amtracs packing the beach, Japanese artillery opens fire and the real battle begins. Saigo’s unit is soon cut off and Colonel Adachi orders his men to kill themselves as Suribachi falls. Kuribayashi can see the flag from his command post and orders Adachi to order his remaining men to retreat. Driven by his training to kill himself in the event of failure of the Emperor, the Colonel in charge of Suribachi disobeys orders and commits suicide, ordering his men to do the same. Saigo hears the order to retreat but brings the order to commit suicide to his captain. One by one, Saigo’s platoon commits suicide by detonating hand grenades, and he watches his best friend kill himself. Only Shimizu and Saigo are left, and Saigo runs. Shimizu, intending to commit suicide himself despite his misgivings, runs after Saigo to remind him of his duty. Instead, Saigo convinces him that Kuribayashi ordered a retreat from Suribachi to continue the fight.

As they retreat through the tunnels, Saigo and Shimizu encounter Japanese soldiers beating and bayoneting a captured American; see another soldier burned by a flame thrower; and make a daring night crossing under fire. Saigo shows Shimizu how to survive, hanging back from the group, until they reach the northern caves. Lieutanant Ito (Shido Nakamura) then decides to execute them for cowardice, only to be stopped by Kuribayashi.

Lieutenant Ito then orders a night attack, only to be countermanded by Baron Nishi. Ito leads the remaining men of his platoon himself into the open, where he tells them he will attack a tank and they should return to the caves. He then lies down among the dead with satchel charges all over himself to detonate when a tank comes near.

Meanwhile, the Japanese in the remaining caves engage the Americans with 320mm mortars, artillery, and machine guns. Baron Nishi shoots an American named Sam, and orders him brought into the complex. The badly wounded man is terrified, and Nishi orders the last of the morphine for him and calms him by telling him of his time in Los Angeles as an Olympian. Sam is comforted, and after Sam dies Nishi reads the last letter from his mother, making the men realize that the Americans are a lot like them.

Shimizu, heartbroken and sick of war, convinces Saigo to try to surrender to the Americans. Saigo says they should leave one at a time to avoid suspicion. Shimizyu goes first, but the picket guard, who also wants to desert, realizes his intentions. They run off as an officer discovers them and shoots the picket. Saigo cannot follow as the pickets are charged with preventing any more men from leaving. Shimizu surrenders to the Americans, who are just about to launch an attack, and he and another POW are left in the care of two Marines. Because they don’t want to take the POWs back to intelligence at night, and they don’t want to be separated form their unit, one of the Marines decides to shoot both POWs. Shimizu dies with his white flag still in his hands.Nishi is wounded and the complex must be abandoned as the Americans attack again as the Japanese have no more ammunition, food or water. Once again the survivors must make a dangerous journey at night. Led by Lieutenant Okubo (Eijiro Ozaki) they travel past the bodies of Shimizu and his companion, and Saigo cries for his friend.

As they reach the new Japanese front line, they must pass between their own forces and the Americans who are laying siege to the last bastion, Kuribayashi command post. Saigo is one of the few men to get into the command post unscathed, while Okubo and many others are gunned down in the crossfire.

Kuribayashi greets the men warmly but his adjutant shamefully admits they are out of water and food. As the men rest, Kuribayashi contemplates his life, especially his trip to the United States in the 1920s. He remembers a dinner where he received a M1911 Colt .45 automatic from the Americans in Washington, DC. Saigo remembers leaving his pregnant wife when he was drafted. She was very upset, knowing that none of the drafted men have ever come back from the war, and he misses her and his life with her.

The battle nears its end. Lieutenant Ito has been lying for what seems like days in a pile of corpses, seeing the vultures descend on the dead. He decides to stand up and leaves the satchel charges behind.

Kuribayashi orders an attack. He recognizes Saigo and decides to save his life again, since everything happens in threes. Saigo is ordered to burn the command post while the attack happens. Saigo buries the men’s letter’s that were unable to get off the island before the invasion. Kuribayashi tells his men the plan and says he will be out in front. They attack and push deep into the American lines. An explosion that seriously wounds his legs hits Kuribayashi. For hours his aide drags him across the remaining Japanese territory, until Kuribayashi cannot go on and orders ritual beheading. Just as the aide raises his sword, an American shoots him and Saigo comes out of nowhere to minister to Kuribayashi. Saigo and Kuribayashi talk about the battle and then the General shoots himself in the chest with his American pistol. Saigo buries the body and is discovered by an American patrol. Seeing the General’s pistol in the Lieutenant’s belt as a souvenir, Saigo decides to attack with his shovel, but is knocked out by the American Lieutenant. He wakes up on the beach and realizes he has survived.

Sixty years later, the Japanese archeology team (remember them?) recovers the Letters that Saigo buried. They spill out of the bag as the team lefts it out of the ground.

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Historical Accuracy

Recreating the American forces in World War II is hard. Recreating Japanese forces is next to impossible. After the war, most munitions were destroyed to prevent militarists from reneging on the surrender and restarting the war. Only one Zero, the premiere Japanese fighter, is still flying. I doubt if any of the many Japanese tanks in the film are anything but mockups. The Japanese aircraft seen in the film were of two types. The first, the Japanese transport used by Kuribayashi to get to Iwo Jima in the opening, was a modified Lockheed Electra, the same type of aircraft flown by Amelia Earhart in the 1930s. The others, supposedly Aichi D3A dive bombers, were heavily modified AT-6 Harvard/Texan/SNJ American trainers, probably the same ones constructed for Tora! Tora! Tora! In 1970 and used for Japanese aircraft ever since.The 320 mm spigot mortar, while probably somewhat accurate, looked very comical to me, as if the Japanese bought it from Acme Looney Tunes.

One of the most troubling aspects of the film was the choice to not deal with the issue of comfort women. A 1992 Japan Times article doesn’t list Iwo Jima as a “comfort women” base. Given the size of the garrison and the presence of civilians until the end of 1944, it’s likely Japanese, Chinese and/or Korean sex slaves were forced to service the Japanese soldiers, either on Iwo Jima or en route to Iwo Jima. There were Korean labor units on the island throughout the battle, and I read years ago that the comfort women were evacuated before the battle on Kuribayashi’s order. With as many as 200,000 women forced into prostitution across Asia and the Pacific, having sex with a dozen to forty men each day, forced abortions, kidnappings, rape, and torture on a daily basis, it is both odd and not unexpected that Eastwood choose not to deal with this issue. Perhaps because of his need to film on Iwo Jima itself, he choose to omit a depiction of forced prostitution so that he didn’t offend the Japanese politicians from whom he needed permission to film on Iwo Jima.

The rock and sand on Iwo Jima was very hot, due not only to the climate, but also due to the volcanic nature of the island. They were dark, stinky caves that smelled of sulfur — in fact, one of the American translations of the name of Iwo Jima called it Sulfur Island. Many of them were low enough that the Japanese had to crouch to access the tunnel. 20,000 men were packed into eleven miles of tunnels, many not accessible to the Americans until the Japanese chose to reveal them. United States Army troops stumbled upon the field hospital of the 2nd Mixed Brigade, located 100 feet underground on eastern Iwo Jima, in April 1945. The Japanese survivors voted sixty-nine to three to surrender, and one of the outvoted committed suicide. Yet in the film, the caves and tunnels seem almost palatial compared to the reality. Only once is vermin shown in the film, when rats and mice, flies and spiders and much more were a constant presence. None of the soldiers complain about the sulfur stench or pass out digging in the hot tunnels. They are well lit (only some tunnels were lit at all) and many are shown to have speaker systems, when only a few were wired, and I assume some of those were knocked out of commission during the bombing and shelling and fighting. Plus, the generators would have built up carbon monoxide and other toxic gases, while their exhausts would have been seen topside. I’m sure the Japanese solved or partially solved some of these issues, but I would have been interested in how they did that. However, the tunnels seem to magically appear, as if Kuribayashi, said, “Dig!” and the whole tunnel complex appeared. Certainly some of that was due to the need to get to the main event of the film, the invasion itself, but that’s what montages were created for. Less objective is the portrayal of the Japanese soldiers. War is a complicated thing, and even though I have studied World War II my whole life, I don’t think warfare can be conveyed through any means of communication except direct experience. Letters from Iwo Jima is a very complicated approach to military filmmaking; on the one hand it’s a standard war film, tracking a platoon from inception to destruction, like Stalingrad, Battleground or Halls of Montezuma. However, it’s a Japanese platoon, and they aren’t the epitome of evil in this movie, they are just confused and ignorant, or scared and homesick, like most grunt small unit war films. So on one hand, this movie is just a standard war movie with typical stereotypes (the coward, the loner, the psycho, the dead meat, the noble warrior) translated into Japanese.

But because it’s in Japanese, about the American enemy, it’s more complicated than just a simple war movie. As John Dower writes, “official consecration of anti-Japanese racism was profoundly symbolic: if every man, woman, and child on the western coasts of the Americas was categorically identified by the highest quarters as a potential menace simply because of his or her ethnicity, then the real Japanese enemy abroad could only be perceived as a truly faceless, monolithic, incorrigible, and stupendously formidable foe.” The Japanese saw the Americans in much the same light; after the battle, the Japanese newspapers informed the public, “Enemy plans to wipe Japan and the Japanese people off the face of the earth are no propaganda manifestations:” The Americans considered the Japanese vermin to be exterminated. The Japanese considered the Americans to be cowards, inferior in fighting spirit to the Japanese warrior, and whatever the material superiority the Allies held, the Japanese fighting spirit would be enough to overcome it.

This combination of warrior ethos and unabashed racism had some interesting consequences for the Japanese armed forces during World War II. The film touches on these problems, but never deals with them squarely. Characters like Lieutenant Ito, the Captain, and Colonel Adachi, who seek death in battle or offer their life for the Emperor, are treated as the exception, somewhat mad for their pursuit of death. The noble Japanese characters — Saigo, Kuribayashi, and Baron Nishi — seem to regard them as evil or demented. Surely there were such Japanese on the island; surely they were noble warriors among them; just as surely they were the minority. The average Japanese soldier was terrified, probably under-trained, certainly undervalued. They knew that if they failed to hold the Americans at Iwo Jima, the Home Islands, their wives and girlfriends, their children, would be the next target. If you look at the statistics, out of 1,083 POWs captured on Iwo Jima, 867 surrendered after the island was declared secure and the Army took over combat on March 26. In other words, out of 18,000 defenders killed in major combat between February 19 and March 26, only 216 surrendered, or 1.2% were incapacitated or injured or voluntarily surrendered. Now, these statistics cannot take into account the men who were ordered or executed by their commanders, but still, 98.8% died defending the island. It’s impossible to ignore that the garrison of Iwo Jima was highly motivated to kill Americans, and discounting propaganda, their motivation was to protect hearth and home.Americans often discuss the virulent opposition of the Japanese in the later part of the war while discounting their own fighting men’s extreme sacrifices in the early days of World War II. While certainly not on the level of having entire garrisons exterminated, American and Allied fighting men committed suicide trying to stop the Japanese. On December 10, 1941, United States Army Air Corps Captain Colin P. Kelly was reported to have rammed his B-17 into the battleship IJN Haruna off of the Philippines; after the war it turned out that he had crashed on landing and exploded after an attack on Imperial Japanese Navy cruiser Ashigara. United States Marine Corps Captain Richard E. Fleming was said to have deliberately crashed his SB2U Vindicator into Imperial Japanese Navy cruiser Mikuma on June 5, 1942 after the war, when his award decoration states no such thing, and witnesses recall his plane falling into the Pacific.

The Japanese, despite their gains, were stunned by such examples of suicide, and some officers began to question their assumptions about the Americans in mid-1942. But popular American analysis of late war battles seem to dwell on the traditional belief that Japanese soldiers were motivated by robotic devotion to the Emperor, rather than a zeal to prevent a landing in the Home Islands. Letters from Iwo Jima does take pains to humanize the Japanese defenders by connecting them with their families at home, and the motivation to defend the homeland is certainly mentioned. Bu the film takes this theme and sets it aside after setting it up, choosing instead to focus on the absurdity and uselessness of war. After the Americans land, no mention of holding the Americans on Iwo Jima is made again. The battle, mostly seen through homesick Saigo’s eyes, is a series of attempts to avoid combat, to survive rather than engage the enemy.

This has angered some viewers. However, I think the film is more complicated than simple anti-American jingoism. If we look at both of Eastwood’s World War II movies, they are companions to each other, with stories overlapping and started in one and finished in the other. In Flags of Our Fathers, the Japanese are never seen except briefly and in shadow; in Letters from Iwo Jima, several American characters not only appear, but they have speaking roles. Certainly this was a Hollywood convention to make a foreign language picture more palatable to American audiences, but it also has what I think is an unintended effect. The atrocity that the Japanese commit on Ralph Ignatowski in Flags of Our Fathers isn’t seen. While a character that could be Ignatowski is beaten and bayoneted in Letters from Iwo Jima, neither film shows what happened to him in real life: his arms were broken, he was beaten beyond recognition, and either while he was still alive or after death, his penis was removed and stuffed into his mouth. Another Marine, an officer, was tied up and then burned with a captured flamethrower. But we don’t see that onscreen in either of the two films. What we do see is American Marines choosing to execute two prisoners, and Americans inflicting horrific casualties in Letters of Iwo Jima while the Japanese ability to inflict 26,000 American casualties seems to pass without much notice.

While Flags of Our Fathers had a large budget, and the budget of Letters from Iwo Jima is clearly in the millions, it’s also clear that Letters doesn’t have the expansive three-dimensional graphics that Flags does. Some of the effects shots were recycled from Flags, while others were created for this film. I’m not a fan of extensive three-dimensional effects for recreating World War II, because effects artists, while making steady advances in technology, seem to mix in some elements that seem to scream, “See! We made this amazing shot on a computer!!” that instantly takes me out of the realism of the film. (Before you write angry e-mails, I teach 3D Animation to high school students, so I know the time and effort quality graphics take.) Letters from Iwo Jima is no exception; the 3D graphics are very pronounced and noticeable, as they were in Flags of Our Fathers. In today’s world, there’s no way to create large battle fleets without computer graphics; using tarps to cover modern missile launchers as they did in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor just doesn’t work if you are serious about historical accuracy (Michael Bay is notoriously not concerned with that). However, there are several working World War II cargo ships, including one in San Francisco. I would have liked more realistic shots of equipment using existing museums over the computer-generated graphics. As in Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood doesn’t strive for the hot combat recreations that Spielberg chose to include in Saving Private Ryan. I found the combat in both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima rather subdued. If anything, it is more intense in Letters than Flags. Modern war often doesn’t have neat gunshot wounds where the victim keels over dead. There are more realistic depictions of the trauma of combat in Letters, but it’s more of the vein of horror films than the emotionally traumatizing Saving Private Ryan. A Japanese soldier has his arm traumatically amputated; several soldiers are exploded with computer graphics and hand grenades. Yet, like Flags, there’s a detachment that interfered from the emotional impact. Eastwood, in his reverence for all the men in this battle, seems to be unwilling or unable to bring the audience to the emotional gut punch of Spielberg’s film. That’s a problem in a movie that’s almost three hours long. While the claustrophobia of the tunnels is only touched upon, I certainly felt it by the end of the film, and while it’s an interesting movie (especially for a World War II history student like me) it seemed too long at times, even for me. The people in the audience with me who were not Japanese speakers or war historians were less than pleased with the length. Part of that is a burgeoning trend of blockbusters to be three hours regardless of whether the story needs it, but their were stories of Iwo Jima that went untold that would have been more interesting, like how the Japanese still alive on Mount Suribachi reacted when the flag was raised. The Japanese left alive on Suribachi on February 23, 1945 could have wiped out the first patrol, since they were numerically superior at that time. Instead, they chose to attack sporadically only when the first flag was raised, and then they were blasted with satchel charges that collapsed the cave exits and left scores, perhaps hundreds, of them entombed. We know how the Americans on the island and the fleet offshore reacted to the flag, but I’m stunned that Eastwood choose to show only Kuribayashi’s reaction from the far end of the island. In Flags of Our Fathers, Japanese come out of the caves and tunnels to snipe at the first flag raisers, but what those men thought and said when the flag went up goes unimagined by Eastwood in Letters from Iwo Jima.

In fact, while I think the highly flawed but still interesting Flags of Our Fathers could have stood on its own for the stories Bradley wrote about, both movies could be intertwined in a much more interesting way that Eastwood obviously choose to ignore. Rather than a direct Rashomon-like telling of the Battle of Iwo Jima, he has two movies that at once complement each other but stand alone on their own merits and faults.

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Letters from Iwo Jima is the better of the two films, despite being a more traditional war story, because the flashback-heavy Flags of Our Fathers is too disjointed to tell a cohesive story. Letters from Iwo Jima doesn’t deserve the critical praise it’s receiving because at its heart it is a simple war film with the traditional stereotypes, but it deserves praise because its subject is the little-known and often misunderstood Japanese enemy. It’s worthy of attention from the average American as well as military history students. I recommend the film, even though that may not be clear from this review, because it’s an interesting perspective, even though I have some issues with many of the film’s core values.

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Pre-Release Announcements

These notes were written in 2005, before the film was released.

Letters from Iwo Jima was nominated for four Oscars.

AwardAward Nominee
Best Achievement in DirectingClint Eastwood
Best Achievement in Sound EditingAlan Robert Murray
Best Motion Picture of the YearClint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Robert Lorenz
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the ScreenIris Yamashita (screenplay/story); Paul Haggis (story)

The first trailer, from Japan, in a combination with Flags of Our Fathers is available on August 15, 2006. The Japanese title is Letters from Iwo Jima.

Ken Watanabe gave an interview on May 15, 2006 to MacClean’s about Red Sun, Black Sand in which he hopes this film can educate young Japanese: “As we went through this film we realized that, until now, we haven’t really looked at Japan’s past. We kind of looked away from it,” Watanabe said. “But we have to look at it and accept the fact that this is what our fathers and grandfathers have actually done. Accepting the reality is the first step,”

IMdB is reporting the cast on March 10, 2006 to be Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase,Shido Nakamura, Kazunari Ninomiya and Ken Watanabe. Watanabe is rumored playing Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. The title has been changed to Red Sun, Black Sand.

Watanabe is a great choice to play Kuribayashi. I’m more excited about this movie than Flags of Our Fathers.

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