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?