Saturday, February 10, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

As I said to Cat as we walked into the theater, my favorite movies are those that take me inside an experience utterly foreign to me. It might be a time in history, or another culture, or a point of view.

Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima qualifies on all three points: it is the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the point of view of the Japanese soldiers fighting there. It does all that, and more: it tells the story in the capsule of a story perfectly told, with all its plotlines knitted together in elegant symmetry.

Eastwood made it possible for me to care deeply about the fates of several soldiers, some of them seasoned, cultured professionals of samurai descent, others the rawest of recruits. His decisions to shoot in black and white and for all the dialogue to be in Japanese must have driven the studio mad, but instead of creating distance between the audience and the story, they brought us in close: I felt that I was there, crouching in the tunnels under Mt. Suribachi.

The actors' performances are superb: Ken Watanabe has finally been given a role in an American film worthy of his craft. In Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai he played stereotypes, cardboard roles. His performance of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi is a richer, fuller role, a portrayal of a complex soldier, a genuine samurai, of whom Marine Corps General Holland Smith said, ""Of all our adversaries in the Pacific, Kuribayashi was the most redoubtable."

Saigo, the Everyman character, is played by Kazunari Ninomiya in his first appearance in American cinema. Unlike The Last Samurai, which provided us with an improbable American character with whom to identify, Eastwood and the writer, Iris Yamashita trusted the audience to identify with a baker who was inclined to think a little too much for his own good. Ninomiya's expressive face gives away the portions of the story usually lost to film.

The voices of this film, recorded in Japanese, translated for us in subtitles, remind us relentlessly that war is not the natural occupation of humanity. We belong with our families, in our places of business, in the normalcy of everyday life. It is a great evil, indeed, when ordinary people, and good people, even when great soldiers, are sent into battle simply because the Powers that Be have decided to send them. The soldiers in this film know that they will never return home alive. For some of them, it is enough to die for honor, to die to make the invasion of the Japanese islands a bit more expensive to the American troops. For others, it gradually dawns that they may be dying for nothing.

Clint Eastwood has given us another brilliant film. Thumb's up.


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