Film: Letters from Iwo Jima

16 November, 2009

I stayed up last night to watch Letters from Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood and got to bed about 2ish (aargh, why did they have to put it on so late? I need my eight hours sleep!) But I’m glad I did because the film was amazing. My tv was too far and I was in bed, so I couldn’t really read the subtitles in English, but the Japanese script was understated, powerful and poignant. The film had an all Japanese cast headed by Watanabe Ken and Ninomiya Kazunari (who is band-mates with my other favourite Matsumoto Jun from Gokusen) with some American soldiers appearing towards the end of the film.

Letters from Iwo Jima opens with the discovery of a cache of letters buried in one of the many caves dotting Iwo Jima and follows the Japanese army’s last stand against the American navy. The letters belong to the soldiers left behind to defend the volcanic island, and we find out about the lives and fears of these soldiers, most of them very young, afraid and disillusioned as they try to fight for their emperor and country.

I knew this would be a sad film, as all war films are, but I didn’t expect it to be beautiful. There was a quiet diginity to the main characters in the film, although there have been some criticism regarding the authenticity of some of the viewpoints (and the fact that the most sympathetic characters had visited America prior to the war and therefore had a soft spot for their enemy). A lot of the Japanese fanaticism was toned down, barring a few characters, but what I thought was the strength of this film lay in the human-ness of the characters, especially the young private Saigo played by Ninomiya Kazunari. He wasn’t a blind fanatic, he didn’t want to fight, he hated the dreaded Kempeitai, Japan’s secret police who stripped his family of their livelihood, and just wanted to go back to his wife and child whom he was yet to meet. In fact, he was more like the young men my Japanese grandfather used to speak of when I questioned him about the war for my school project. None of the men he knew went to their deaths with ‘Banzai’ on their lips, but they all cried out for their mothers.

I’ve seen quite a few Japanese war dramas and was impressed that Eastwood tried not to stick too much to the general stereotypes prevalent in the genre. The characters seemed more real to me. In one scene Eastwood shows Saigo receiving his conscription paper and his wife begging for him to be spared, only for some of her patriotic neightbours to state that they too have all lost their men to the war and that she would just have to bear it and do her duty to her country. There is fear, uneasiness and a quiet chaos in Eastwood’s film.

For me, it was enlightening to see a different kind of film emerging. Just as in the West, as the years pass, we can look at the events of WWII with new eyes and discuss what happened in new ways, trying to understand the events without censoring ourselves too much.

Yup, we seem to be having a Japanfest on Channel 4/Film 4 recently. I saw Flags of Our Fathers directed by Clint Eastwood a couple of years ago and thought it was OK, but not great. I generally like Eastwood’s movies such as Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby but Flags of Our Fathers didn’t really do it for me.

However, I was really excited about seeing Letters from Iwo Jima, it’s sister piece, with an almost all Japanese cast led by Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya. But, as usual, I didn’t get round to it (movie turnovers are so quick these day) and finally, they are showing it on telly! So Sunday night, I’ll be glued to Channel 4 at 11:35pm watching Letters from Iwo Jima with a box of tissues as I know it’s going to be very sad.

Have you seen it? What did you think?

Shimotsuma Monogatari

Just a quick note for those in the UK, the Japanese film Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) will be on Film 4 today at 11:15pm. Watch it if you can!

Shimotsuma Monogatari

I watched this film a few weeks ago and was totally bowled over. It had been on my radar for a number of years now since its release in 2004, but I wasn’t particularly drawn to it as I had no interest in the gothic lolita trend that was sweeping Japan and slowly travelling to the West. But Shimotsuma Monogatari was a bright, funny and poignant film about friendship, fitting in and chasing your dreams.

The style of the film is similar to that of director Tetsuya Nakashima’s subsequent film Kiraware Matsuko no Isshou (Memories of Matsuko) which I saw a few years ago, a technicolour pop extravaganza that seems to be at odds with its weighty themes but works brilliantly.

The protagonists Momoko and Ichigo, played by two of Japan’s most talked about actresses Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya, are both charmingly contrary and you can’t help but want them to succeed. There are a lot of comic moments in the film, especially in the beginning when we are a given a technicolour kaleidoscope of Momoko’s background and upbringing, especially her petit yakuza father’s dodgy business: flogging pirate brand goods which became a surprise cult hit.

After getting caught and threatened with legal action, Momoko and her father make a quick getaway to live with her grandmother in a sleepy town called Shimotsuma, where the locals all shop for clothes at Jusco, Japan’s Wal-Mart. Momoko, who spends all her time alone, has one passion, and that is for the lolita fashion brand Baby, The Stars Shine Bright. It isn’t cheap to go all the way to Tokyo to shop for clothes and Momoko soon needs to look for ways to fund her lolita fashion lifestyle, and she does so by selling her father’s long-forgotten knock-offs. And that is how she meets Ichigo, a member of the local ladies motorbike gang, Ponytails. The two strike an unlikely friendship and the film follows their transformation as they realise what they mean to each other.

Shimotsuma Monogatari is a comic, yet poignant, portrayal of smalltown Japan, slowly vanishing as it is consumed by the ever encroaching urban sprawl. The message I got was that wherever you are, you should follow your dreams and that there is always someone you can bond with even in the most unlikeliest of places. I know it sounds cheesy, but what a great film.


A Japanese friend of mine recently recommended Okuribito (Departures) saying what a beautiful film it was. I recalled hearing about it earlier this year and was vaguely aware that the film was about undertakers and funerals. I wasn’t particularly interested in watching something depressing but her comments and the cast list (I have a soft spot for Tsutomu Yamazaki) swayed me into watching it a few nights ago to relieve a particularly stressful day. And boy was I glad I did. It was surprisingly funny, sad, warm and big-hearted and each actor gave their utmost in rendering trully incredible performances. I laughed and cried all the way through it. It totally deserves the Oscar it won for the Best Foreign Language Film.

One of the qualms I have about Japanese modern day cinema is that, although they are beautifully shot and the stories engaging, sometimes the editing isn’t quite right. Often the film is too long without enough action (although I like my action films, I also like slow, contemplative ones too.) However, Okuribito was just perfect (except for one scene when the protagonist is playing his cello on the side of road to signal the passing of time…)

The main character Daigo played by Masahiro Motoki was inspired. I have always known him as Mok-kun (as he was affectionately known way back in the 80s as a member of the aidoru group Shibugakitai) and I never realised what a good actor he was. His facial expressions alone could have carried the film. The supporting cast of Tsutomu Yamazaki (his boss), Ryoko Hirosue (his wife) and Kimiko Yo (his colleague) were all reassuringly familiar and understated. It is a quiet film with big themes.

The film begins with Dai returning to his home town after his dream of becoming a professional orchestral cellist is dashed. He has to deal with memories of his father who had dissapeared leaving his mother to bring him up alone. She had left him her coffeeshop/bar when she passed away a few years back but he had been abroad at the time and was unable to make it to her funeral. Dai is an isolated figure, keeping his problems to himself and unable to confide in his supportive wife. This becomes a problem when he is unable to refuse a position at the local encoffinment company and is drawn into lying about his work. Soon old prejudices regarding working with the dead start to surface especially in such a small town. How Dai deals with this and how his perspective on life, love and family changes is the central theme of this film. What you can do for the one you love is to prepare and send them off to the next world.

Although the film is about death, the director Yojiro Takita and writer Kundo Koyama leave you thinking about life.