Eyes of a Stranger
By Michael Koresky
Letters from Iwo Jima
Dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Bros.
Literally digging their own graves, the Imperial Army soldiers witnessed in Clint Eastwood’s elegiac Letters from Iwo Jima, bring new meaning to the term “walking dead.” Even more so than Kon Ichikawa’s benchmark Fires on the Plain, the 1959 zombified slog through the ghastly remains of Japanese soldiers who both perpetrated and were touched by the horrors of WWII, Letters feels like the first war film entirely populated by ghosts. What Eastwood has accomplished here is not as simple as “capturing the other side’s point of view” or creating the “Japanese counterpoint” to his earlier 2006 Iwo Jima film, Flags of Our Fathers, either of which would infer some sort of gimmickry. The amount of dedication and historical and humanist fascination that has gone into creating Letters from Iwo Jima reveals not only where the filmmaker’s sentiments lie but also that the fragmentary nature of Flags of Our Fathers was perhaps a necessity Eastwood had to work his way through. Flags seems atonal in comparison, but not a “noble failure,” as many had condescended; in retrospect, Flags of Our Fathers’ wholly roundabout approach to the American boys’ subjective experience on the shores of Iwo Jima, filtered as it is through a critique of American media consumption and wartime image-making, seems like a purposely dispassionate warm-up for Letters from Iwo Jima’s thoroughly immersive experience. Rather than an intellectualized discernment of the creation and falsehood of the American hero, Letters goes for a fully, almost purely sensory delving, an uncovering of the Imperial Army’s self-delusional tactics, blinding patriotism, and most importantly, individualized grief, as its dream was coming to a close.
It’s a literal excavation: at the opening, present-day archeologists are digging through the remains of Japanese WWII soldiers in the caves on the island of Iwo Jima. What are we searching for, as we sift through the remnants? It seems as though Eastwood himself doesn’t even know yet. Freed from the proselytizing, point-bludgeoning of Paul Haggis (who gets a story credit here), the director and first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita take a more discursive approach, circling around the confusions, fears, and traumas of its central characters rather than force speeches into their mouths. There’s no doubt that Letters from Iwo Jima, playing along two parallel tracks simultaneously, creates an odd narrative schism: both that of the outsider, the American, looking at the enemy with narrowed vision, discernment, and most problematically, curiosity; while at the same time, the actors, the setting, and the sensitivity of the script coax something remarkably genuine, and even at times authentic out of material that in other hands could have been hopelessly exoticized. Letters from Iwo Jima can be written off as neither “wholly Japanese” nor tritely “universal”—sure, it’s humanist, but in that limited, Fordian, classical Hollywood mode. What’s most impressive, even devastating, is that the clarity of vision is nearly crystalline as it shines through the dangerous, crisscrossed layers of representation and historical preconceptions. Like The Thin Red Line, it’s a war film that views the rupture of violence from a godly remove—Eastwood accomplishes this not through omniscient narration or traditional distancing effects, but rather through a finely modulated outsider’s point of view. Though completely spoken in Japanese (with English subtitles), and even if the Allied troops are rarely shown as more than a shadowy blur or a dark blot on the horizon, Letters from Iwo Jima is inescapably, fascinatingly, first and foremost, an American film.
Letters makes for a surprisingly sturdy companion piece to Alexander Sokurov’s sublime The Sun. Still inexplicably unreleased in the U.S., The Sun is the third piece in the Russian master filmmaker’s unofficial tetrology surveying and attempting to demystify world leaders who have dominated twentieth-century consciousness; here, Sokurov compellingly, with strokes so gentle the film’s effect is nearly imperceptible until it’s long over, witnesses, both bemused and horrified, the final days of Emperor Hirohito’s reign. The connection between The Sun and Letters from Iwo Jima doesn’t merely lie in the subject matter, or in the fact that they both channel the ends of an empire through a hush of resignation, but that they’re both mediated through a foreign lens, and even more distinctly, from the point of view of prior token “enemy” outposts. Both films are imbued with a certain clinical fascination, yet they overcome this: The Sun with a dreamlike tenor, a floating otherworldliness that wipes away the boundaries between past and present—the film seems to exist in a liminal state; and Letters with a fairly complex engagement with historical preconceptions—Imperial Army catchwords like “honor” and the notion of unquestioning patriotism are complicated by Yamashita’s focus on the ongoing struggles between individualism and conformity, even while the bullets and blood are flying every which way.
Certainly, Eastwood and Yamashita stack the deck a bit in favor of their American audiences by focusing on hugely identifiable main characters, at least the most recognizably “tragic,” two of who have strong sympathy for their U.S. enemies. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Imperial Japanese General who leads the stronghold on Iwo Jima, overseeing the digging and of more than 18 miles of tunnels within the island’s earth, is played by Ken Watanabe, with a sense of duty that is often outrun by his deferential charm. Having lived in the United States before the war, Kuribayashi formed certain allegiances, yet as a flashback to a prewar dinner with his American counterparts attests, his loyalty to his country cannot be quelled. Eastwood remains challenged and fascinated by this, even as his film bends over backwards to make Watanabe’s general “just like us.” To further humanize Kuribayashi, when he arrives on the island, his first gesture is to curtail punishment of lowly soldier Saigo for a minor infraction. Played by wide-eyed and hugely empathetic Kazunari Ninomiya, Saigo makes for an even more accessible protagonist, a reluctant warrior conscripted for service and taken away from his pregnant wife and idyllic life as a small-town baker—a fairly transparent Western audience surrogate.
Yet if the principals (also including the charismatic Tsuyoshi Ihara as former Olympic athlete and equestrian Baron Nishi, whose admiration of Hollywood actors provides for one of the film’s more calculated encounters with an American soldier) come across as surprisingly docile, at least the filmmakers are smart enough to avoid all the pitfalls of their dedication to universalism and equality, balancing the film with surprisingly vicious depictions of the both the Imperial war machine’s sadomasochism and the (barely seen) Americans’ occasional hair-trigger cruelty. Violence springs quick and gruesome in Letters—once the fight for Iwo Jima begins, nearly every scene comprises a battle of wills, between commanders and soldiers, enemies and compatriots, and most memorably, within themselves. Naturally, death by suicide here takes precedence over the carnage of the beachfront battlefields; the troops are sure that they will die, yet if it is by their own hand, have they retained their sense of loyalty to their nation? Some can go through with it and others cannot, and the process of group suicide is handled by Eastwood with potent intimacy; this is in-the-moment decision-making, portrayed as surprisingly hasty, which belies commonly held conventions of calculated Japanese ultra-patriotism. With a camera that appears both endlessly mobile and, as usual with the filmmaker, stately and gracious, Eastwood simply watches as the horrors pile up, one after another, with an ever spiraling consequence.
Letters from Iwo Jima is an inexorable trudge toward death, populated by those who aren’t sure they’re ready, even as their wartime philosophy tells them so. Despite its subject matter’s inherent otherness, the film plays into Eastwood’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker and is a piece with his best works. Eastwood’s strongest when he allows himself to stretch out time, to strike chords of temporal sureness. “This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime,” his photojournalist Kincaid said in The Bridges of Madison County, about that film’s brief, passionate love affair so elegantly, emotionally translated into the witnessing of hours passing. That forward motion—think Madison County, Unforgiven, A Perfect World—that feels both propulsively plotted and deliberately paced, in which a succession of chronological events suddenly add up to an overwhelming crescendo, was deeply missed in Flags of Our Fathers, as with his more clipped, fragmented narratives like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the less successful side trips in Mystic River. Letters from Iwo Jima pauses for the occasional flashback—Saigo’s pleasantly mundane workaday life before Imperial draftsmen bang at the door—but never veers off track from its grueling forward motion.
For all of Eastwood and Yamashita’s delicate treading, ultimately Letters from Iwo Jima never becomes ossified nor overly conciliatory in its treatment of “the other side.” Like Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima questions what constitutes “heroism,” or if there even is such a thing at all—yet Flags was muddied by its impenetrable, overly conceptual structure, and there were only the slimmest silhouettes of characters to which one could connect its queries. Letters from Iwo Jima brings Flags’ slippery musings back to flesh and blood basics. In every moment, any given character must reconcile his own legacy with his very real corporeality—loyalty to the “glorious empire” that has let them down and left them stranded on a remote beach, or protection of one’s own body in the here and now; heaven or earth?