BY CHIZU OMORI
What is it about Clint Eastwood? Everybody knows him — “Dirty Harry,” the cowboy in the spaghetti Westerns, the deliciously handsome, cool character in dozens of films — but his career as a filmmaker in his middle and later years puts him in the ranks of a world-class director/producer. Yet, one would never have thought that he would be compared to John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, but it’s happening. “Letters From Iwo Jima” confirms his standing — it is a stunner.
“Letters” is the other half of Eastwood’s film duo about the World War II battle on Iwo Jima, a seemingly worthless chunk of rock in the Pacific Ocean, but considered strategic in that war between Japan and the United States. The first film, “Flags of Our Fathers,” about the American invasion of the Japanese-held island, focuses on a famous photo taken of the raising of the American flag by a bunch of American GIs on the island’s highest point, Mount Suribachi. This photograph became instantly iconic, a symbol of American resolve and strength, a graphic representation of military success and printed on the front pages of every newspaper. It became a rallying point to whip up public enthusiasm for the flagging war effort.
Based on the real stories of three men who were members of the flag-raising group, “Flags” follows their exploitation as cogs in a media machine on war bond-selling events all over the country. Labeled heroes, these soldiers faced a great deal of personal stress and the Native American, Ira Hayes, cracks under the strain. “Flags” is about imagery and hype, how one photo had such a huge impact on the nation, but the three men were ever mindful of the costs of taking Iwo Jima. In the course of that battle, 7,000 American men were killed. It’s a very good movie.
But that was only half the story, as Eastwood quickly understood in doing pre-production research. His creative instincts are now so finely honed, he knows a great story when he runs across one, and he made an immediate decision that the other half, the Japanese half, had to be told for a fuller understanding of that battle, and consequently, the Pacific war.
Who but Eastwood could persuade a studio to make a film in the Japanese language with English subtitles, told from a World War II Japanese point of view? Steven Spielberg is involved as a producer, so you have two of the biggest names in the movie business making this movie that is breathtakingly daring in concept and which can be described as an instant classic.
Iwo Jima, 700 miles from Japan, was considered a crucial stepping stone for the American forces to get close enough to launch an invasion of Japan. The Japanese soldiers under General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) are repeatedly told that it was their duty to hold the island for as long as possible, and that they were required to give their all. Kuribayashi’s plan is to dig in and inflict as much damage on the Americans who were going to arrive with overwhelming force. Withstanding a tremendous pounding by bombings from planes and warships, and then the actual invasion, they hold out for 40 days, the last five without food or water.
Kuribayashi knows it’s a lost cause and many of the grunts have mixed feelings about the mission. Yet, as this story unfolds, it is their fate to be part of the plan, to the last man. The warrior culture, something endemic to almost all cultures, demands that the rituals and codes of war dominate the behavior of armies, and war has been so mythologized and romanticized that infatuation with the weapons, uniforms, and all that battle gear is accepted child’s play in our society.
Japanese militarism, based on the samurai code, allowed its soldiers to indulge in bestial behavior at times, but in “Letters,” the fully fleshed-out characters are human beings caught in circumstances beyond their control. You can’t help but feel a great sadness when the savage battle comes to an end. Something like 20,000 Japanese died and only 300 or so Japanese survived. You gotta wonder: Why do we keep doing these things?
“Letters” is a bit too long, but that’s a quibble. First-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita, a Japanese American, has done a masterful job. This is moviemaking and storytelling at its best. It makes you think about war.
“Letters From Iwo Jima” is playing in Seattle at Landmark Egyptian Theatre on 805 E. Pine St..