January 17-23, 2007

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'Letters From Iwo Jima'

Photograph by Merie W. Wallace
A soldier's tale: Kazunari Ninomiya struggles to survive in 'Letters From Iwo Jima.'

Second Front

Clint Eastwood looks at the battle for Iwo Jima from the Japanese side

By Richard von Busack

EVEN THOUGH it arrives with an odor of prestige thick enough to choke a mule, Letters From Iwo Jima deserves some honor. Its relative simplicity earns praise, and so does its antiwar sentiment. It's easier to make an antiwar film when you're telling a story from the losing side. Ultimately, it is a far better work than Flags of Our Fathers. Here, director Clint Eastwood stands his ground, rather than going for the endless modish time shifts that marked Flags.

There are only a few time jumps, including a modern-day archeology team discovering a skull in one of the tunnels underneath Iwo Jima. Eastwood then winds the clock back to the months before the American invasion. The arrival of Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) throws the Japanese defenders into disorder. His plan to fortify Mt. Suribachi instead of the beaches disturbs his staff. They feel it's better to meet the Americans at the waterline.

One of the common soldiers, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), writes home to his wife, telling his story. A baker in the prewar era, he saw his trade dismantled bit by bit because of the war effort. Eventually, he was drafted into the Imperial army just as his wife was about to give birth.

Saigo's unit has a new addition, a member of the Japanese military police, Shimizu (Ryo Kase). Saigo fears that the officer is spying on him for some of the things he wrote home about: the hard work, the short rations and the sulfurous stench of the island. As the assault begins, the entrenched soldiers endure it in their own ways. Some become vengeful. Some commit suicide; others are resigned to their own deaths.

We are quickly at home with the soldiers. Watanabe is one of those actors who audiences instinctively trust. He spares his soldiers disciplinary beatings and uses his courtly manners on a fellow officer. Eastwood's view of Kuribayashi is like some Southerner's reverie of Stonewall Jackson. Eastwood's scheme works so well that when the first American bomber attacks, you feel dread; you want those planes turned away. And it gets worse as the Americans hammer away at this fortress island.

It isn't quite Grand Illusion. Still, the film fits in the tradition of Renoir's masterpiece, grant it that. And Eastwood avoids most of the poorly staged civilian life scenes that helped make Flags of Our Fathers so minor. Yet there may be something that's almost a reference to the story of Cindy Sheehan. Note the almost between-the-lines dig at the current Mideast debacle. Shimizu has a flashback story, where he is partnered with an officer who scolds a Japanese lady for not displaying her flag properly. It turns out that she has a son in the military.

And you learn pieces of history: that Iwo Jima had to be evacuated of civilians, and what exactly was said to a soldier when he was drafted into the Imperial Army. (Draftees were told "Congratulations!" instead of "Greetings.")

At the same time, Eastwood doesn't spare the atrocities that brought down the wrath of the world on the Japanese. We see Japanese infantrymen ordered to shoot Yank medics. Later, an American soldier, still puppyish with baby fat, is captured and murdered with bayonets.

If my admiration for this film sounds cold, it's because that's the way the film left me. As a grand old man, Eastwood subscribes to the great-man theory of history. And then there is the matter of the elderly person's fatalism that informs this film—does this fatalism really mesh with the spirit of younger men forced to fight to the death? Maybe Letters From Iwo Jima is a succès d'estime because Eastwood's notions of heroism coincide with our own movie-fed ideas of the Japanese character: stoic, all-enduring and always ready to face the end.

Eastwood does not lack ambition. The film's somberness counters the false euphoria of much of what we're seeing at the movies lately. But it is visually uninteresting after it comes to rest in a series of caves for the last hour and a half. During this second half, deeds of humanity and inhumanity follow each other with the regularity of the black-and-white stripes on a zebra.

In shooting in Japanese, Eastwood has made a brave experiment. However, forgiving the Japanese for the war is not as much of a breakthrough as the short-memoried might think. Yes, this is a humanist film, and it insists that all soldiers are brothers, but when you compare it to the work of Sam Fuller, Letters From Iwo Jima quickly takes its proper scale.

Take Fuller's House of Bamboo, recently released on DVD. That 1955 film is superior in composition, with its widescreen assortment of criminals, displayed with all the graphic harmony of a Japanese screen. American copper Robert Stack barks his way through Occupied Tokyo like a runaway dog, in contrast to the Asian calm of Robert Ryan as an Yankee spoiler come to rip off "the most polite city in the most polite country in the world." See this or other Fuller films, and Eastwood's attempt to understand and forgive doesn't seem as epochal as some of my critical brethren think.

Movie Times Letters From Iwo Jima (R; 141 min.), directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, photographed by Tom Stern and starring Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya, opens Jan. 19.

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