Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA"
Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara

Greenbelt 1, Cinema 1


There are always two factions in a war. Since time immemorial, the film industry has bombarded us with stories of American troops battling everyone from the (Native) Indians, the Germans to the Japanese.

Therefore it was a good concept for director Clint Eastwood to present us two movies depicting the battle of Iwo Jima. "Flags of our Fathers" was shown first and I have to say I was disappointed by its lack of proper characterization of the flag raisers on that island. "Letters from Iwo Jima" was shown a few months later and although it was much better than "Flags", I wasn't thoroughly impressed by it, either. This film which depicted the battle from the Japanese perspective was also adapted from a book entitled "Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi".

Filmed in mostly grayish and sepia tones, the film shows us the lives of the Japanese soldiers who were already living on Iwo Jima long before the US got involved in the war in the Pacific. The soldiers mostly through Saigo, a baker narrate their daily experiences to their wives back home through letters. We are shown brief flashback scenes of their lives in the land of the rising sun before they were recruited by the Imperial army to fight and die for their country. Then we are introduced to the man, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) who would lead the soldiers to hold fort against the US forces, Iwo Jima being the first point of entry into Japanese soil. The Japanese at this point had already suffered heavy casualties in the battle of the Marianas islands, the ammunition supplies in Iwo Jima were also running low and worse of all, the main headquarters makes it clear that there will be no reinforcements whatsoever. Much against the wishes of the other Japanese officers, the well polished and erudite General (a former Japanese military attache assigned in Washington, D.C) devises this cunning plan to dig tunnels and caves inside Iwo Jima itself instead of fortifying their barracks along the shoreline. So the Japanese were literally *in* Iwo Jima not on it.

The first 45 minutes of the film is dull and slow paced with the soldiers mostly digging and trying to find some sense of purpose for being away from their families. Their officers keep harping them on with propaganda statements about soldiers expected to die for their emperor and Japan. The characters were well fleshed out and replete with highly emotional gestures. In one letter, Saigo expressed his fear to his pregnant wife:

"We soldiers dig. We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in. Am I digging my own grave?"

Clint Eastwood also projected the officers who had lived briefly in the US before the start of the war as being more refined with a forgiving humane nature. While their local bred counterparts maintained that "surrendering is a sign of cowardice". It was more honorable to commit suicide by blowing themselves up with grenades. A trait inherent in a face saving society like Japan.

Once the US forces land on Iwo Jima, the film picks up a notch or two. Not nearly as dramatic as I would have expected since most of the scenes are in dimly lit caves. After a while it gets tedious to squint my eyes at the bleak darkness, I was hoping for some rays of sunshine to wash over the film so it would be more engaging for me as I started to fidget impatiently in my seat. The last few moments of the film turns into this Hollywoodish scripted little spiel. First, you have that patriotic song from the kids in Nagano sent over the radio dedicated to General Kuribayashi. It basically elevated the guy to hero status. It felt like an eulogy sang for a person who was still alive and knew he was going to die in a few hours. Then you have Kuribayashi doing a "I will always be in front of you" speech to rally the few remaining soldiers to fight till death. Yeah sure as if he really did have time amidst the hell breaking loose scenario. Essentially cheesy little scenes to pull on our heartstrings, really. It was so corny.

I admit I am totally biased. I grew up listening to first hand accounts about the atrocities committed by the Japanese in my country. So it has tainted my judgment even though it happened almost 60 years ago. I can never bring myself to be sympathetic towards them. That might also be the reason why I wasn't emotionally invested in this film.

I mean sure the plot is more heartfelt. The Japanese soldiers were merely pawns used by their imperialistic government. It was filmed entirely in Japanese with English subtitles so it was more natural. It is well directed by Clint Eastwood. Ken Watanabe was brilliantly credible as General Kuribayashi. It is a good glimpse into the 'other side of the fence', so to speak.

But.

It was too sanitized for my taste. You cannot really believe that those soldiers were that tame. It glossed over the horrific brutality which really unfolded on that island. It is just so mind boggling how human beings can treat other human beings with such evil contempt.

I could go on and on but I won't. I've already said enough as it is.

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