Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

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The story of the infamously bloody Battle of Iwo Jima, as told from the perspective of the doomed Japanese soldiers who fought it.

As Allied forces reclaim the Pacific in 1945, only one island stands between them and the Japanese mainland: Iwo Jima.

Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives to command the forces on the tiny, unpopulated volcanic island. He surveys Iwo Jima with his subordinates and inspects the troops. Kuribayashi insists on rationing food for everyone on the island (not just the enlisted men) and condemns the banzai suicide attacks, viewing them as a waste of human life. Smart and ingenious, Kuribayashi worked as an international diplomat in America for two years prior to the war, so he is more educated than most on the American mentality and, importantly, how to defeat them. Tough but fair, Kuribayashi attempts to use the geographical features of Iwo Jima to his advantage, ordering his soldiers to dig tunnels and caves in the hills, as opposed to trenches on the beach.

Kuribayashi’s old friend, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), joins him in the daunting task of keeping Iwo Jima out of American hands. Charming and well-educated, Nishi is a former Olympic equestrian champion who appreciates Kuribayashi’s resourcefulness despite the objections of other officers.

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Meanwhile, Private Saido (Kazunari Ninomiya) writes letters home to his wife during his time in the caves. An earnest and intelligent man, Saido begins to doubt his mission; unlike many of his compatriots, he doesn’t want to sacrifice himself for the good of the Empire. He finds an unlikely kindred spirit in the mysterious Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former member of the kenpeitei (secret police).

Knowing that his men lack adequate food, water, and ammunition, Kuribayashi tries to keep spirits high, but he is alarmed when he hears that the Allied forces have decimated the Japanese Navy and Air Force at the Battle of the Mariana Islands. Desperate for any sort of assistance, Kuribayashi sends the increasingly ill Admiral Ohsugi (Nobumasa Sakagami) back to Tokyo to request support.

Despite no air or naval reinforcements, Kuribayashi remains stoic and turns what was predicted to be an easy, five-day American victory into over a month of prolonged, brutal warfare.

“If our children can live safely for one more day, it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island,” Kuribayashi urges his men.

Along the way, we see Saido, Shimizu, and others struggle to come to grips with their suicide mission while also showing empathy, courage, and bravery in the face of impossible odds.

 

This film is one of my favorites. War films typically draw you in quickly, and Letters from Iwo Jima takes a unique perspective. Clint Eastwood had previously helmed Flags of our Fathers, a WWII movie that focused on the American side of the Battle of Iwo Jima, but along the way, the veteran director said he was stricken by the similarities of the letters that American and Japanese soldiers wrote. In particular, Eastwood said he found it intriguing that American soldiers only wanted to be home with their families, away from the hellish conditions of war, but the Japanese knew that they were not expected to come home alive, with suicide being preferable to capture.

This is explored in-depth in the movie itself. Shmizu states early on in the film that American soldiers lack discipline and let their emotions interfere with their battle duties. Japanese soldiers, he reasons, are honored to die for their Emperor and their country, viewing death as the only honorable method of leaving a war. However, Saido consistently shows humanity, being willing to care for the wounded and follow Kuribayashi’s orders, even when other soldiers or officers refuse and opt for suicide.

The reason Letters from Iwo Jima succeeds on such a grand scale is the character development. It’s an incredibly dark story, showing hopeless, exhausted, hungry men preparing for their inevitable deaths at the hands of their sworn enemies. To be sure, the film never shies away from the brutality of the Japanese, but still shows their humanity and their struggles to come to grips with their new reality. These men were willing and able to die for extremist, imperialist nationalism, but they still worried about their families and their communities just like a soldier of any nationality.

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Letters from Iwo Jima was released in Japan on December 9, 2006 and in the US on December 20. The film received overwhelming acclaim in both countries, with audiences responding strongly to the performances and direction. Made for a modest $19 million, Letters from Iwo Jima grossed almost $69 million at the worldwide box office and received rave reviews from Rolling Stone, Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and Entertainment Weekly. 

While Letters did win Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Golden Globes, it was ineligible for the same award at the Oscars since it was made and shot in the States by an American director. Nonetheless, the movie received four nominations overall at the Oscars — Best Director, Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound Editing.

In short, Letters from Iwo Jima features outstanding acting and directing, a moving story, and suitable period-piece cinematography. It’s a tour-de-force and one of the best war films of the modern era.

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Grade: A+

  • Directed by Clint Eastwood
  • Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Lorenz
  • Screenplay by Iris Yamashita
  • Story by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis
  • Based on the book “Picture Letters from Commander-in-Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi & Tsuyoko Yoshido
  • Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Takumi Bando, Eijiro Ozaki, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takashi Yamaguchi, Yuki Matsuzaki, Nobumasa Sakagami, Ken Kensei, Toshi Toda, Hiro Abe, Masashi Nagadoi
  • Director of Photography — Tom Stern
  • Music — Kyle Eastwood & Michael Stevens
  • Editor — Joel Cox & Gary D. Roach
  • Rated R for graphic war violence.

TRIVIA

  • Filmed back-to-back with Flags of our Fathers.
  • Most of the young cast knew nothing about the incidents on Iwo Jima, as the subject is not taught in Japanese schools.
  • One of only nine foreign language films ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Though shot almost entirely in Japanese, it was an American production and was therefore ineligible for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination.
  • When word spread that acclaimed Japanese actor Ken Watanabe had been cast in the lead role of Kuribayashi, virtually every young actor in Japan became interested in working on the film as well.
  • Eastwood had originally wanted to film Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers as one film, but as pre-production continued on Flags, he felt it would be impossible to fit both of the storylines into a single movie. Primarily, Eastwood stated that the two separate cultures created very distinctive and separate storylines, creating the need for two individual films about the same battle.
  • The film was shot entirely in California in only 32 days. The filmmakers were not allowed to film in Iwo Jima itself due to cultural taboos, as over 10,000 soldiers are still buried on the island.
  • Ken Watanabe visited the birthplace and grave of Kuribayashi to help him build on his characterization.
  • Eastwood originally wanted Paul Haggis, a frequent collaborator, to write the script, but Haggis felt like he lacked the expertise required to make a foreign language film. He recommended Iris Yamashita, a Japanese-American writer who was a research assistant on Flags of our Fathers.
  • In an effort to keep the movie as historically accurate as possible, costume designer Deborah Hopper deliberately chose not to use silk in any of the period kimono costumes that are used in the film’s flashbacks. Silk was considered too expensive of a fabric to be used in wartime and its use in garments was prohibited.
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