Charlie Don't Surf

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On 'Letters From Iwo Jima'

emailed Feb. 15, 2007

So back now from the movie and it's almost 2 a.m. ... it was long, and sad. It tells the battle from the Japanese perspective, filmed in the same sepia color-drained palette that the first movie was, "Flags of Our Fathers." It is very much an anti-war movie, I think. Tough going sometimes, sudden explosions and violence, suicides among the soldiers, desperation as defeat approaches inevitably and they are told to die fighting. The foreboding of doom hangs over all the characters almost from the beginning of the movie - the officers learn that their navy has been wiped out at Saipan, that they will have no air support, that the Americans are coming in huge numbers. But of all the Pacific island battles of the war, Iwo Jima was considered sacred "mainland" Japanese soil, and it will also provide the Americans with a key airstrip to use for attacking Tokyo. So they are all told to defend it to the last, even though the generals know they cannot win.

The general in command of the Japanese, Kurayabashi, is played by Ken Watanabe, who is excellent. His character isn't at all the shrieking Japanese-military stereotype - he's a gentle, thoughtful strategist.. He has been to the US and made good friends there. The day he arrives, he tells the captains to stop beating their men. He designs a good plan to defend the island for as long as they can with what they have. Later, when the main hill, Surabachi (where the famous flag-raising took place) is lost in the battle, the surviving officers at the hill radio back that they and their men will kill themselves to die with honor -- but he tells them to try to escape back to the caves instead.

He has a personal friend among the officers, Captain Nishi, who won a gold medal in equestrian jumping at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. He also refuses to send his men on "die with honor" suicide missions as the Americans quickly swarm over the island. He orders his men to retrieve a young wounded American and treat him in their cave, and under the guise of "interrogating" him, he has a conversation with him about Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Later, after the US soldier dies, he finds a letter from the kid's mother next to him. He reads it out loud to his men in the cave, translating to Japanese, her words from a farm in Nebraska about how their dogs got out and terrorized a rooster. They've all been taught that American soldiers are cowards and savages, so they're stunned. Maybe it sounds dumb, but it's an incredible scene.

One soldier who we've followed from the beginning finally decides to surrender, a terrible humiliation, but he just decides he wants to live. He manages to make it to the American lines with a white flag, and they take him prisoner, but after all that -- the US soldier charged with guarding him shoots him.

Anyway. Just again and again, the incredible futility of the whole enterprise, the tragic wastes in the name of honor, the mind-numbing senselessness of war.

Some movies are disturbing and harrowing and sad, but nonetheless important and worth seeing.


  • At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Beautifully written. Glad you wrote it because i hate sad i got the benefit of hearing what the movie was about without having to weep through it!

  • At 3:18 AM, Anonymous Maura said…

    Thanks for writing this.


Post a Comment

<< Home