Suicide and martyrdom have become our constant companions in this dark new century. We’ve settled comfortably into explaining the phenomenon in terms of extremism or fanaticism. We place the blame securely on tribal and religious traditions gone terribly wrong in the minds of some few who would rather seek revenge on past enemies than build a future for their children. A deep smoldering sense of humiliation leads some men and women to destroy themselves rather than build a new life. Conviction supplants reason, and compromise represents a betrayal of integrity. The caricature of the crazed believer comes easily, but it fails to grasp the power of a deeply ingrained structure of values that in one form or another has sustained a culture for centuries.
Letters From Iwo Jima is Clint Eastwood’s deeply moving reflection on a tradition so alien as to be incomprehensible to those of us who inhabit another time and place, another universe of belief. Oddly, but quite logically, his background in Western films provides the foundation for such melancholy reflections. After working in several classic Western films, he understands that the American ethos evolved in large part from its frontier spirit: A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, despite the lethal consequences. Western heroes in the movies settle issues of pride with a six-gun, even if it means a suicidal shootout in front of the saloon for a perceived slight or standing ground in the face of overwhelming numbers of Comanche warriors rather than execute a tactical retreat. A Western hero would rather die than yield on a matter of principle, however frivolous. Cattlemen and farmers can never resolve their differences through discussion; both claim an inalienable right to the land, even though a range war will claim many lives, destroy property, impede progress and leave the issue smoldering into another generation. Clint Eastwood has shot more than his share of outlaws on the screen; now, at 76, he can reflect on the self-destructive imperatives of a dying culture.
Yes, “Letters From Iwo Jima” makes a powerful antiwar statement, but it does much more. It reveals the dark side of patriotism and tribal traditions as they work themselves out in the lives of ordinary people caught in the irresistible currents of history. Their tragedy provokes a mixed response. One can only admire the courage and integrity of those who would die for a cause they embrace with passion. Yet admiration for their heroism is tempered by a sense of waste. Why would they sacrifice their lives for a lost cause, which is by any rational standard empty, if not ultimately corrupt? As is often the case in affairs of honor, rationality is irrelevant. Significantly, of course, the embrace of self-destruction by Japanese patriots then did not involve the innocent as do the agents of death today.
The story of the siege of Iwo Jima in March 1944 is framed by a sequence set in 2005, showing Japanese archeologist searching through the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Regardless of their judgment of Imperial Japan, or ours, the team of researchers venerate this tiny volcanic island as consecrated by the blood of over 20,000 of their countrymen. Reverence for their sacrifice does not imply approval of their cause. Amid the rusting tanks and ruined caves that stand as relics to their futile sacrifice, the scientists unearth a canvas bag of letters to loved ones at home. The device employed in the Japanese language story and script by Iris Yamashita situates the story at some distance from the present. It allows for quiet recollection in the present, after a half-century has allowed the din of war to grow silent and its fires to cool. This was a technique Eastwood used to great advantage when he adapted the sentimental novel, The Bridges of Madison County (1995). In this earlier film, the story of a long-forgotten romantic dalliance came to us through the imaginations of the adult children reading through their mother’s diary.
The letters of the title are an actual collection of autograph letters with pencil drawings by Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi to his wife during the preparation for an American invasion. Published in Japan, it forms the backbone of the screenplay, and it is augmented by letters from other Japanese soldiers supposedly found by the archeologists in the opening scene.
As the flashback begins, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives on the island to take charge of its fortifications. He knows that Iwo Jima will fall, but he hopes to inflict enough casualties on the Americans to force them to scrap plans to invade the mainland and offer conditions for an honorable peace. Such ideas, if spoken aloud, constitute treason. An ordinary soldier who complains about having to dig defense trenches goes too far when he suggests that they should simply give this barren island to the Americans and go home. His lieutenant overhears his soldierly griping and makes an example of him by beating him with a cane in front of the others. The general stops the beating, ostensibly to keep every last soldier in fighting condition, but perhaps because the soldier only verbalized the general’s own thoughts.
Kuribayashi revamps the defense plans, and the other officers take offense at having their orders reversed. The command structure fragments. Everyone obeys, as one would expect in the Imperial Army, but those who believe they have lost face because of the altered strategy merely hide their resentment. During the actual battle, when lines of communication break down, some will formulate their own battle plans, even if they must countermand orders from the central headquarters.
Everyone on the island realizes that the defenders will face far superior forces, but jealousy between branches of the service and secrecy—possibly deception—from Tokyo conceal their actual situation. Only as the battle draws near does Kuribayashi learn that the Imperial fleet has been destroyed and what few planes remain after the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” have been redeployed to defend the mainland. He will have no air cover, no reinforcements and no resupply. The Americans will bomb and shell at will, and they will have a five-to-one advantage in ground personnel. The foot soldiers keep alive the illusion of hope by reciting slogans to the effect that they will win because the Americans are cowards and will refuse to face them in battle. Once he looks into the distance and sees the tiny American flag atop Mount Suribachi, Kuribayashi knows the battle is all but over.
Clint Eastwood moves his story forward at a glacial pace, made to seem even slower by the English subtitles for the Japanese dialogue. This reflects the tedium of war. The soldiers wait for the invasion, and then, even in the midst of combat, they huddle in their caves waiting to learn where and how they are to engage the enemy. As they gradually accept the futility of their mission, the culture of death compounds their tragedy. Some officers lead their units in group suicide; others order their men to fight on even as ammunition runs out. The few who suggest surrender are traitors to the Emperor and forfeit their right to live.
Several flashbacks from the battlefield flesh out not only the soldiers but the culture that has created them. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple young baker, embraces his pregnant wife after dinner, when a soldier knocks on the door to order him into the army. A woman from the neighborhood congratulates them for his having been chosen to die for the Emperor, even though he will never see his child. The couple almost believe her. Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a gold medal equestrian at the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932, looks back fondly to his days in the United States. At a formal dinner in California, a mindless socialite asks if he would ever go to battle against his host country. He asserts that he would have no choice, because his personal conscience and his country’s are one. Another soldier has been dismissed from the elite secret police for refusing to shoot a family’s pet whose barking has disrupted public order. For failing to execute an act of wanton cruelty, intended only to enforce subjugation of the civilian population, he receives a brutal beating himself and is transferred without rank to the doomed defense forces on Iwo Jima.
Tom Stern’s haunting photography has drained the color from the screen. The characters acquire a ghostly pallor, as they appear as the dead men they truly are. The score by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens employs Western rather than Japanese idioms. It is moving, without being intrusive. These pieces come together magnificently. At a time of life when most directors spend their days polishing past Oscars, Clint Eastwood keeps growing in stature as America’s premier film artist. Even more remarkably, as he has continued to grow beyond the cartoonish characters he created as an actor in “Rawhide,” the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry films, he has provided one of the most profound reflections on the value of life in a world mesmerized by death that I have experienced anywhere.