Letters From Iwo Jima: A Review

War movies often highlight the futility of war as a side dish to more palatable themes of glory, heroism, nationalism, and of course action. Letters from Iwo Jima, however, delves deeper than its brethren. This film focuses on the experiences of Japanese soldiers leading up to and throughout an allied assault on the island of Iwo Jima. A few mainstream films of late have found Japanese history fertile ground and portray snapshots of Japanese culture and history – The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha come to mind. The soldier’s experiences in Letters from Iwo Jima offer another perspective and provide a telling account of the cultural pressures Japanese troops faced in that era.

It is easy to get sidetracked by the messages this powerful piece of cinema presents. This is a beautiful film which is quite an achievement considering the desolate surrounds of the Iwa Jima island. The choice to avoid colour for much of the film adds weight and mood to the circumstances and highlights the stark existence of the final days these soldiers lead.

Viewers follow two soldiers in particular; a man of rank General Tadamichi Kuribayashi played by Ken Watanabe and the second a ‘commoner’ Saigo played by Kazunari Ninomiya. You won’t really see Americans in this movie outside of memory sojourns and a couple of brief scenes toward the end of the film. This lack of American presence or perspective is what makes this film account startling in its believability. I found myself studying the American troops, when they did appear, with intent curiosity to observe how the ‘enemy’ would behave. This immersion, after all, is exactly what we get in other war movies - only usually from an allied perspective. The decision by Eastwood to focus on the Japanese perspective is a brave move. The Japanese suffered more than just a military defeat in WW2 but in the annals of History as well. They have a barbarous reputation stemming from this conflict that ranges from Kamikaze attacks to POW camp atrocities. Eastwood’s film moves to add perspective to what History and propaganda often serve up for us.

Don’t get me wrong, Letters from Iwo Jima does not attempt to put Japanese culture up on a pedestal. In fact the film hands viewers the opportunity to see that the Japanese were just as human as the Americans, both for better and for worse. This is what makes Letters from Iwo Jima more than just a war movie. The film’s themes range from war and class through to racism and cultural ignorance. Eastwood strives to break down the cultural stereotypes many of us perceive to be truths and reminds us that we are all human regardless of the side we fight for. Eastwood serves up these reminders in spades.

The Japanese soldiers in Letters from Iwo Jima initially discuss their enemy and brag of impending victory before the allied onslaught. Then as the battle closes on them and they suffer heavy losses, their predicament dawns on them. In the face of defeat many attempt Seppuku, ritual suicide, to retain honour in preference to surrender or dishonourable death in the hands of the enemy. Others choose to fight on and are judged adversely for their choice by many of their peers. Simply, the viewer is shown how ordinary men react when they confront the same demons generations of soldiers, the world over, have endured when they stared death in the face. We see the soldiers learn that there are no answers, just as there are no answers in life. Eastwood shows Saigo, General Tadamichi and their fellow soldiers struggle with their perceptions of what loyalty, honour, bravery and courage are. They question how an honourable Japanese soldier should die. The result is ugly and tragic but Eastwood helps us learn from this. We learn, of course, that war is futile but also that to cast a net over the Japanese nationality and its cultural sensibilities would be ignorant.

This film is a message to all of us that, for all the differences we perceive in each other, we are all really the same. As gruesome and sobering as war is, it is ironic that war itself is what it sometimes takes for nations to realise this truth. The last stanza of Kenneth Slessor’s poem Beach Burial sums up this very notion.

Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.

More war movies should be like this.