Letters From Iwo Jima

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The point of Letters From Iwo Jima is a little obvious. It tells us that the Japanese were human beings too. Well, I’m sure any intelligent individual would have already known that. But does the film tell us anything more than this? I’m not sure that it does. Therefore I can’t add myself to the list of people who hail Letters From Iwo Jima as a masterpiece. In fact, I think Flags of Our Fathers may well be the better film. It at least attempted to try and do something different with the traditional war flick. It tried to open it up and show some sort of historical perspective. And although Letters From Iwo Jima does this to a certain extent, it didn’t do it enough for my liking.

In Letters From Iwo Jima Eastwood seems so burdened by his desire to show the Japanese as human beings that the film often feels manipulative. For instance, there’s a scene where two Japanese soldiers, tired of fighting, decide to surrender to the Americans. The very second that the prisoners were left alone with two Yanks I knew what was going to happen. But despite that, I kept on saying to myself, ‘Don’t shoot them’. But of course, the Americans do indeed shoot the Japanese soldiers. You can hear the film shouting at you: ‘Look, we did bad things too! We’re as bad as each other!’ But although the Allies did indeed do terrible things, the film doesn’t really show the other side of the coin. We see some of the Japanese officers mistreating their soldiers, but we don’t see any of the terrible things that were done to American troops – the only piece of up close violence is when some Japanese soldiers repeatedly bayonet an American, and that’s mainly out of surprise and fear, which is perfectly understandable in a combat situation.

However, unlike some people, I didn’t find it particularly dubious that a couple of the ‘good’ Japanese characters had some sort of connection to America - The General and Baron Nishi both have spent time there. I think the point the film is trying to make here is that these individuals have the experience to know that the Americans are people just like them, that the government is lying is when it makes them out to be monsters and cowards. Therefore the ordinary person, who doesn’t have the life experience of these characters and who is constantly bombarded by propaganda, believes the lies that are spat out. But the scene where an American soldier is captured by Baron Nishi and we find out that he isn’t the scum the Japanese government has made him out to be fell a little flat for me. Again it felt a little laboured. I’m just not sure that it would be so easy for a large group of people to deprogram years of bullshit and lies.

And it disappointed me that the film didn’t investigate the motivations of the Japanese in any depth. We see that the ordinary man was forced into combat – there’s a good scene where the film’s main character, a baker, is forced to look pleased when he’s called up for duty – but the motivations of the government itself are left unsaid. As a consequence you don’t fully understand the crap the Japanese were fed. And I think it would be a lot easier to sympathise with the characters if we were given a fuller picture – the snippets that we’re given, like the baker being called up and the soldier who’s forced to kill a woman’s dog by a superior, help somewhat, but the ‘bad’ characters remain screaming stereotypes. What was their motivation?

What works well, though, is the portrayal of the misery the Japanese soldiers had to go through. Living in caves like animals, they certainly didn’t have an easy time of it. And then having hardly any ammunition, little water and virtually no food you wonder how they had the will to fight at all. And that’s what makes their story tragic – that so many lives were lost for nothing. And I couldn’t help but feel anger when a large group of Japanese soldiers held grenades to their chest and blew themselves up. You want to be able to break them out of their spell, to tell them that their deaths are without reason. And I guess it’s telling that it was in these sorts of scenes, ones were you feel like you’re not being manipulated, that I felt the most sympathy for the Japanese. The film didn’t need to try as hard as it did to communicate the waste of the conflict, you can feel it completely in moments like the one described.

Another moment that I found powerful was when we see a Japanese pillbox get attacked by American soldiers – they attack it with a flamethrower. We actually see this scene first in Flags of Our Fathers. Therefore, rather cleverly I think, Eastwood is asking us where our priorities lie. In the previous film we maybe cheered or smiled or were pleased that the enemy died, but here we’re confronted with the reality – it wasn’t the enemy that were killed, it was a group of ordinary people from a different country who were unlucky enough to get caught up in the conflict. There’s no joy in their deaths. It’s simply a waste.

Now if the entire film garnered this response from me, I would maybe join in with the chorus that is proclaiming it as a masterpiece. As it stands, though, it’s merely a very good film. (I honestly think people are giving this film special dispensation because Eastwood filmed it entirely from the Japanese perspective and because he filmed it in their language. Yes that’s very admirable, but it doesn’t erase the film’s shortcomings.)

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