From the Vault Review: Letters From Iwo Jima

By Quentin Basnaw

War is a horrible thing. It brings out the worst of things in the most innocent of people. If you’re tired of seeing the same old same old war movie, novel, or video game, where one side is the bad guy and everyone dying on the other side is simply cannon fodder, Clint Eastwood’ s 2006 film Letters From Iwo Jima is the film for you. Written by Iris Yamashita, the film accurately depicts the World War 2 Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the late battles of the war in the Pacific Theatre. The battle was important because even though the Japanese forces were horribly unequipped and lacking manpower, they were able to hold out on that little island for over a month, despite the crumbling state of the Japanese war machine. The battle was also where the iconic photograph of the American soldiers lifting the flag on the mountain was taken. The film portrays the conflict from the Japanese perspective. Since it will be ten years old this year, I figured it was time to take a look back at this wonderful movie.

The movie has a lot going for it. The movie is mostly in Japanese, which helps sell its authenticity. How many movies do we watch where the foreigners speak English, to each other? It’s just not realistic. So yes, some reading is required for this movie, but it is never obnoxious. The movie also features a cast of Japanese actors, lead by Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Inception), who is a phenomenal actor. He portrays General Kobyashi, who is stern and demanding of his men, bound by his duty, yet he is still human, respectful, and caring. Watanabe captures the essence of a man who is doing right by his country even when he knows there is no way to win the battle. It’s amazing to watch unfold, as the character is completely accurate to historical accounts of the real Kobyashi’s actions. The other major players are superb as well. The bulk of the soldiers presented are tired of fighting the war, and have essentially been stationed on Iwo Jima to die. They all portray men wavering between their duties and seeing how the war they are serving in is horrible. All these actors are so good that they definitely deserve more international work.

In keeping with the complex characters, the story is relatable. The Japanese are simply doing their duty fighting; you do not want them to succeed, but at the same time you don’t want them to fail. You end up wishing for all the fighting to stop! But alas, the Japanese get hammered in the fight, and continuously fall back as their desperate situation gets more and more bleak. The movie is completely fair in its representation of both sides of the conflict. In simpler terms, there are some scumbag Japanese officers/soldiers, but also honorable ones, such as Kobyashi. However, there are some real scumbags on the American side, but also a soldier who can simply talk to a Japanese soldier he encounters like they are two human beings. I feel like this is a powerful message, one the movie executes beautifully without being too in-your-face about it. I feel that, in today’s world, messages like this are often lost because of their bad handling. Letters from Iwo Jima handles it well because neither side is right or wrong. They are simply both fighting for their governments.

The only issue I can find with this film is that it is not that re-watchable. Horrible thing to say, right? I just tore this movie apart! In all seriousness, this movie is definitely slower than most movies we’re used to watching today. Once everything has been established though, like a chess game, and things inevitably hit the fan, the payoff is tremendous. The characters, conflict, and overall message are drawn completely into focus, making you stop and think about wars throughout history, and how humans, no matter their nationality, are capable of stellar compassion, but also horrible evil. Rent this movie from Bracken Library today!

Rating: 4.5/5