It's the companion piece to Flags of our Fathers
. Together the two films tell us about the battle of Iwo Jima, which was one of the most ferocious of the whole Pacific campaign of World War Two. This film takes the Japanese side, is almost entirely in Japanese with subtitles and is based on two non-fiction books.
Just to give a little historical perspective, the battle took place between about 22,000 Japanese and 110,000 American soldiers. Unsurprisingly the Americans won, but the Japanese inflicted more casualties than they incurred, despite losing over 90% of their men. Only 1,083 Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner, a significant and grisly factor in which was their tendency to commit suicide. The entire Japanese population of Saipan had killed themselves on Imperial orders when the Americans took the island, for instance. This includes women and children. They jumped off a cliff. This was seen as honourable, you see, whereas defeat was shameful.
This is sufficiently alien to a modern audience that you'll see mainstream American reviewers misunderstanding the Japanese soldiers' motives when this starts happening in Clint Eastwood's film, although fortunately this time there are no civilians involved. It's one of the most awkward things about the film, especially when you're discussing it afterwards with someone Japanese. Fortunately there doesn't seem to be any sympathy in modern Japan for that old-fashioned mindset, but you've got to remember that back then, these beliefs were ingrained in the entire culture. Survive a losing battle and your commander might kill you for being so dishonourable as to be alive. Personally I found such scenes tended to push me out of the film. Yes, they're real and horrible. Nevertheless my response tended to be "too stupid to live" and I'd simply tune out the gore, regarding such people as losers and the world as being a better place without them.
Such scenes aside, this story is ghastly. I'm glad I watched the film and I'd be pleased to see it again, but what happens in it is inhuman. The Japanese army know they're losing the war. Their own commanders are lying to them, but occasionally the truth seeps through. Eventually it becomes obvious that they've been sent to the island to die and the Imperial High Command isn't even pretending otherwise. Good luck and get killed with honour! They aren't expected to win, but are simply being asked to hurt the enemy as badly as possible. This film did better business in Japan than it did in America and I've heard anecdotes about people in the audience who'd lived through that time being reduced to tears. I can believe it. I was nearly the same. The irony of course is that the bloodbaths on Okinawa and Iwo Jima are what convinced America that a conventional assault on Japan would be too expensive in lives and persuaded them to use their nukes.
Historically it's accurate. The nearest it has to a problem is actually its portrayal of the Americans, whose main contribution to the story is a scene that deserved to get its perpetrators court-martialled. Otherwise they're hardly in it. Had this really been a Japanese film, we'd still be grumbling about anti-American bias, but it's obvious why Eastwood included the scene. It stops Western audiences from feeling too comfortable. We might have been thinking we're watching bad guys get their arses kicked. It's the shock the film needed to anyone in the audience who'd simply been chugging beers and cheering on the offscreen Americans. I approve of it. However from a Japanese point of view, it's an uncomfortable glitch in what's otherwise a faithful historical account.
The dialogue contains a few words of anachronistic modern Japanese, but that's unlikely to register with a Western audience. A bigger problem for me was the actors rattling off their dialogue too fast and not worrying too much about their enunciation. Admittedly that's the authentic speech pattern of men of their generation, but it's still a pain in the neck for anyone trying to do more than just follow the subtitles.
As a production, the film's pretty much flawless. It's also been colour-corrected so heavily as to be black and white. I don't merely mean that it looks like Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, but instead the hues have been taken right down to almost nothing, with a few significant exceptions. Flashbacks are in colour, since it's the war that's unimaginable and unreal, while oranges and reds are rendered when it comes to the Japanese flag, explosions and (to some extent) blood. Presumably this is mirrored in Flags of our Fathers
. After you've watched this film, you'll think it looked exactly as it should have.
I also like the way it handles its length and subject matter. I saw someone online wondering how Akira Kurosawa would have tackled this, which I think is a slightly daft question since he had every opportunity to make such a film and didn't. However if we're going to run with this idea, I reckon the Kurosawa version would have been about five hours long. Clint Eastwood isn't that kind of filmmaker. 141 minutes is pretty short by war movie standards, unless you're just making action nonsense. Letters from Iwo Jima gets on with things. I respect that. Similarly this is a film that takes challenging subject matter and pushes it hard for nearly two and a half hours without ever getting boring, depressing or self-indulgent. Compare with something like Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, for instance, which bored the arse off me.
The only actor here most people will have heard of is Ken Watanabe. However I'd also like to draw your attention to the sinister Shidou Nakamura. In an army full of officers so ready to commit suicide that they'll even disobey their commander's instructions in order to so, he's the biggest idiot of the lot. I actively wanted him dead.
This film won an Oscar, albeit for Best Sound Editing, and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director. That's better than Flags of our Fathers
managed. It also won five best Foreign Language Film awards, four of which came from English-speaking sources and the last one from the Japan Academy. Yes, in Japan. Someone wasn't worrying too much about the finer details there. Personally I really admire this film. It's appalling in the casual evil of 22,000 men knowing that they're being sent to their deaths, but it's not a chore to watch. It couldn't possibly be called cheerful, but it can sometimes be moving. Note for instance that U.S. soldier's letter from his mother. I see that a number of non-US reviewers took offence at the Ken Watanabe character having had a more balanced perspective than his fellow officers because he'd been outside Japan and lived in America, which somehow they interpreted as reflecting American cultural values and perceptions. Wow, morons.
This film is exactly as sentimental as you'd expect given the subject matter, being more about the war than the individual characters caught up in it. That's the nearest I can find to a criticism, by the way. Clint Eastwood rules.