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Letters from Iwo Jima

July 8, 2008

There are movies which you see and enjoy, and there are movies which cease to be a movie, they become a powerful experience, which affects you deeply. Letters from Iwo Jima, is such a movie. It is director Clint Eastwood’s second one on Battle of Iwo Jima after his Flags of our Fathers( check my earlier review on that). Most of the movie is in Japanese, so if you are watching this on DVD check for subtitles. The movie deals with the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the fiercest battles of WW2.

Though the Americans ultimately won the battle, they had to overcome 35 days of fierce resistance from Japanese, and loss of more than 6000 soldiers. The movie starts off with Japanese archaelogists exploring the tunnels built on island of Iwo Jima and finding a series of letters. And cuts into flashback mode to the year 1944. The movie tells the battle from perspective of Private Saigo( Japanese pop music star Kazunari Ninomiya ), a baker who has been conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army, and he is grudgingly digging trenches on the island. As he curses for digging the trenches, and wonders why they dont hand it over to the Americans, he is beaten up by his overseer for making unpatriotic speeches. Fortunately the arrival of Lt.Gen Tadamichi Kuribayashi( Ken Watanabe), who fortunately does not believe in the rough neck methods of his fellow Japanese officers saves his life.

While Kuribayashi is patriotic and ready to give his life for the country, he however hates the fanatic and hot headed behaviour of his co Japanese officers. Kuribayashi shares company with Lt.Col Takeishi Nishi(Tsuyoshi Ihara), who shares his views. However Kuribayashi’s humane outlook and his strategy of defending the inland instead of the beaches, does not find favor with his more fanatical senior officers. He also advises them not to waste time defending the beaches, and hold poisition inland. Apart from the battle, the poor sanitary conditions also take their toll, with many troops dying of dysentery. The battle begins with the American troops bombarding the island aerially and the beach defenses are quickly overcome.

The commander at Mt.Suribachi orders his men to commit suicide, however Kuribayashi, feels rather than wasting men, it is better to order a tactical retreat to the north of the island. There is also another Private Shimizu, who is suspected of being a spy. When Saigo and Shimizu, retreat inland, they are accused of being deserters and about to be beheaded, when again Kuribayashi saves them saying he ordered the retreat. Watch the rest of the movie, to see how the Japanese fight till the last to save their island.

Right from the starting scene when the archaelogists discover the letters to the climax scene, when the voices of the soldiers come out from the letters, the movie is a masterpiece. Director Clint Eastwood, surprasses his earlier ventures, crafting each scene so wonderfully. Every scene, every character perfectly fits into the frame. Clint Eastwood offers a rare insight into the Japanese Army, and we see ordinary people caught in a war beyond their making.

Lt. Gen Kuribayashi is the most memorable character in the movie, reminding us of Karna, in Mahabharat, a right man in the wrong place. He is a true hero, a patriot fiercely loyal to his country, some one who is ready to die for it. Yet he does not suffer from the fanaticism of his more hot headed colleagues. He disapproves of the inhuman treatment to which soldiers are meted out, as in the scene when he asks the overseer who is beating Saigo “Are we having so many soldiers, that we can afford to put two out of comission?”. Saigo is another memorable character, representing the ordinary man, forcibly drafted into the conflict. He has left behind his pregnant wife and just wants to finish the war, and go back. He really wonders why so much conflict on a totally barren island.Shimizu is another character, suspected of being a spy, but in reality he was discharged from the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police, as he refused to obey a superior.

It is these characters which makes Letters from Iwo Jima, such a memorable movie. We see the Japanese soldiers as just another bunch of ordinary people, caught in a conflict. And yet we also see some of the unsavory aspects, the hierarchy, their fanaticism and their suicidal tendency. One of the most hard hitting scenes in the movie, is when the unit, knowing very well that they have lost the battle, and it is all over commit suicide one by one in the cave. And that scene just hits you square in the face. When one of the Japanese soldiers suggest a way to escape, he is shouted down saying“Escape is only for cowards”. Japanese soldiers had this idea that it was to better to die with honor, rather than be captured. And that comes from their Samurai legacy.

The movie also looks at the human side. During an attack, Nishi, reads a letter a dead US marine receives from his mother, and totally breaks down, indicating how human relations are stronger than war. One of the most powerful anti war statements that scene is. As we see the Japanese soldiers fighting and dying to the last, our heart goes out to them. But none more so than the tragic hero Kuribayashi, trust me you will find it hard not to be moved by this man, as you wonder why such a noble soul, was wasted in such a senseless conflict. The background music also wonderfully adds to the movies tragic tone.

The movie is also helped by some superlative performances from the cast. Ken Watanabe, who appeared in some Hollywood movies like The Last Samurai and Batman Begins, delivers a performance, that is outstanding. As a patriotic general, as a person who stands up for his troops, as a man who believes in the human treatment of soldiers, he brings, strength, honor, dignity to his role. He makes you feel for his character at every inch, truly one of the greatest performances of all time. The next best performance is by Japnese pop singer Kazunari Ninomiya as Private Saigo, who showcase the plight of an ordinary man, caught in the war, brilliantly. Totally natural and effortless, he makes you root for his character at every stage. Good performances also come fromTakeichi Nishi as Tsuyoshin Ihara and Ryo Kase as Shimizu.


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