Forming an Inseparable Epic

Maui Time | December 18, 2006
Clint Eastwood Goes Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

“Letters” Responds to “Flags” and Creates Pure Cinematic Poetry

Letters From Iwo Jima (Five Stars)

By Cole Smithey (794 words)

“Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” are opposite sides of the same currency that form an inseparable epic narrative correlating to the deeply personal experiences of soldiers on both sides of the Japanese/American WWII conflict and the nationalist ideologies and traditions at stake. By putting “Letters” in Japanese with English subtitles, Eastwood contains the reflexive energy and sincerity of second-generation Japanese-American Iris Yamashita’s convincing debut script.

Yamashita uses a literary conceit that the story-within-the-story is informed by the discovery of a bag of letters buried on Iwo Jima by Japanese soldiers. Clint Eastwood’s personal inspiration for the film came from a book of letters (“Picture Letters From Commander In Chief”) written by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi to his family during the ‘20s and ‘30s when he lived in the U.S. serving as an envoy. General Kuribayashi was later sent to take over command of battle preparations on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima where the Japanese government sent their forces with the caveat that they would not come back. Eastwood has made the point that “this is not something you could tell an American [soldier] with a straight face.” The director emphasizes the attitudes and fears of the Japanese soldiers fighting against terrible odds for a death that will fulfill their duty.

Ken Watanabe (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) moors the story as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi whose generous empathy for his men and impromptu defense strategy transforms a predicted five-day battle into a 40-day clash. Watanabe is a master of poignancy, and the aristocratic focus of his gaze supports the tremendous level of loyalty he inspires in his soldiers who dig more than 18 miles of tunnels, 5000 caves and untold numbers of “pillbox” trenches in the island’s black sand.

Visually, the movie seems darker even than the monochromatic blue/gray color design used in “Flags of Our Fathers.” The limited color palette has a hypnotic effect of drawing the viewer into the gloomy mindset of the same soldiers that we rooted against while watching “Flags.” The moodiness of the visuals serves to restrain the potentially numbing effect of the often-traumatic violence onscreen. In one of Eastwood’s most effective use of staging, a battalion of exhausted soldiers hides in a tunnel beneath the defeated ground of Mount Suribachi. Sworn to defend the region to their deaths, the soldiers begin, one by one, pulling the pins from their grenades and hitting the bomb against their helmets before blowing themselves up. It’s a surreal scene, and one that might prove unwatchable were it not for the desaturated color that lends a filter of distance from the sad reality of men joining in shared suicides. The episode is significant for the two soldiers who refuse to take their own lives and choose to return to their commander in order to continue fighting. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) dreams of returning to his life as a baker and to his wife and daughter, born after he was sent to war. Ninomiya’s character carries the film’s theme of hope, and the talented young actor’s unvarnished performance has an innocent vitality and purpose that operates on a primal level of childhood approval. He’s never self-pitying and as such gives the audience something to identify with beyond his conflicted sense of humanity and loss.

Clint Eastwood performed the year’s most ambitious and original cinematic feat in making a pair of companion films about the significance of the battle at Iwo Jima and the ways in which the Japanese and American governments treated that pivotal engagement. The films are masterpieces of modern cinema, filled with cinematic poetry of bright, medium and dark images, that express Clint Eastwood’s talent as a director to work on a large-scale narrative canvas and effect an openly resonate exchange of social necessity. They serve to bridge a cultural divide and condemn all acts of war as futile expressions of political impotence if not capitalist greed. Nearly 7000 American soldiers died along with more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima.

Pauline Kael wrote that, “Great movies are rarely perfect movies.” That theorem holds true with “Flags” and “Letters.” These are not perfect movies by any means. They are films that you are lucky to watch once in your life on big screens, before digesting them as artistic representations of a battle that has often been misrepresented. There is truth in these movies, but Clint Eastwood isn’t interested in sanctifying veracity for its own sake. He wants us to recognize the moral fabric that we all share regardless of our loyalities. He wants equality.

Rated R, 141 mins. (A+)


Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 33 N. Market St., Suite 201, Wailuku, HI 96793
  • Phone: (808) 244-0777