Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Letters From Iwo Jima (World War II)

There are plenty of stories about the actions performed by the Japanese during World War II. There are plenty of stories about their treatment of POWs and their suicidal tactics, but there are very few that manage to show it through their eyes. This made Clint Eastwood's "Iwo Jima" saga a very ambitious project, when he followed Flags of Our Fathers with Letters From Iwo Jima. The two films were made simultaneously, and showed the battle of Iwo Jima from different perspectives.Of these two, Letters From Iwo Jima was the better received film. Although it was directed by an American, it was filmed in Japanese with an entirely Japanese cast.

During World War II, Japan developed a questionable propaganda tactic which involved promoting self-sacrifice. The government tried to invoke the Samurai Codes of Feudal Japan, encouraging soldiers to die for their country. This resulted in a variety of suicidal tactics, such as the infamous kamikaze pilots or the "Banzai charges" which usually involved soldiers performing suicidal moves in the hopes of taking taking a large amount of enemies with them. This was also one of the main reasons why Japanese POW camps were so notoriously horrible; they saw it as punishing the imagined cowardice of the allies for surrendering instead of dying for their country.

This mentality proved very effective at motivating soldiers, but is their really honor to be found in battle? What does it mean to be a coward? What does it meant to be patriotic? Where does sacrifice end and needlessly reckless behavior begin? These are all questions asked in Letters From Iwo Jima. Throughout the film, we hear discussions of honor, dedication, and accusations of being "unpatriotic," but in the end we are left to wonder if there is any merit to all these claims. The film makes a strongly concerted effort to represent the Japanese as human beings, who while obviously affected by the Samurai mentality that has been forced onto them, still have feelings.

The opening sequence of the film gives us a brief glimpse of Iwo Jima in the present day, and we see that there are still echoes of World War II. The film cuts between different shots of burnt-out tanks, abandoned bunkers, and broken machine guns. Eventually, we move into an underground tunnel with a group of archaeologists, presumably interested in studying the Battle of Iwo Jima. From here, it is a quick cut to 1944, and we get introduced to Private First Class Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young soldier who shows no real sense of duty or honor. In fact, his first line of dialogue is an offhanded remark that the Japanese should just give Iwo Jima to the Americans so he can go home. This remark is not taken well by his commander.

Saigo is generally treated as more or less a normal person stuck in a war he does not fully understand, and he is only doing as instructed. His main interest throughout is merely to return home to his family, not unlike any of the Americans, but for now he is stuck with the stressful day-to-day life of a soldier. When we first arrive in 1944, we begin by seeing the everyday life of the soldiers, beginning with their efforts to dig trenches on the beach, and later moving through various other tasks. The film delays the arrival of the American soldiers in order to better align the viewer with the Japanese.

During this same sequence, we are introduced to the other main character, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a man who is quickly shown to be far more respectable than one normally associates with Japanese officers of the era. Kuribayashi's first act is to stop an officer from whipping Saigo and his friend for "unpatriotic discussion." He does talk about honor, but he also shows concern for his soldiers. During the film's first act, he focuses primarily on planning a defensive strategy, and proves himself a good tactician. The only trouble is that the more reckless attitudes of the other officers make it hard to think rationally, as we see when they repeatedly insist on including beach defenses even after Kuribayashi explains why they will not work (and do not work, once the Americans arrive).

The battle has not even started yet, and already we are seeing two different groups of characters who defy the usual image of the Japanese military. We have one ordinary man doing his job, and another respectable officer trying to do the honorable thing in the face of a hopeless situation (they are unable to retreat or call for support). The members of the cast who do attempt to invoke the Samurai mentality are generally treated as reckless and in some cases more dangerous to their own unit. At one point in the film, Saigo overhears explicit orders to retreat but is instead pressed into a suicide pact by his commander. One by one he watches several soldiers recklessly kill themselves with their own grenades, until only he and one other soldier remain, the latter of whom accuses the former of cowardice.

When they arrive at another cave on the island, they are greeted with Lt. Ito's (Shido Nakamura) attempt to execute them for cowardice (one which is only halted when Kuribayashi confirms that he did in fact issue orders to retreat) instead of trying to use them as reinforcements. Ito later goes on to ignore Kuribayashi's orders and lead reckless charges against the enemy, before finally trying to throw himself under a tank. This last one proves an extremely ineffective tactic, as he moves into the field with three mines and tries to lie on the ground. Only problem is that no tanks end up coming anywhere near him, making this action entirely useless.

The subject of patriotism becomes a major theme throughout the movie. Early on, we see Saigo being whipped for "unpatriotic discussion." Later on, the unit is joined by Private Shimuzu (Ryō Kase) who is suspected of being a spy working for the Kempeitai (secret police) looking to arrest any "unpatriotic soldiers." Only later in the film does it turn out that Shimuzu was in fact discharged after an unusual incident in which he was accused of being "unpatriotic" for not shooting a dog that another officer claimed was "interfering with military communications."

The themes of honor and patriotism are further deconstructed once the American soldiers finally arrive. Although none are ever given any particular focus, there is an effort to show that they are also human beings, and that the Americans are not all that much different from the Japanese. We do see at least one American soldier committing a war crime (shooting two Japanese prisoners because he doesn't want to be stuck watching them), showing that they are just as capable of atrocities as the Japanese are. At the same time, we also witness the beatdown and eventual bayoneting of a captured American soldier.

The best example of this aspect of the film comes in a brief but memorable sub-plot related to an American soldier named Sam (Luke Eberl), a wounded American soldier who is recovered by Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). Nishi's immediately orders Sam to be treated, which results in tension between him and his fellow officers. One of them tries to argue that the Americans would never treat a Japanese soldier, to which Nishi replies "Have you ever met one?" He has a good point. Aside from Nishi himself, none of them have ever met an American up close. Sam later dies of his injuries, but not before developing a bond with Nishi as the two talk about their experiences in America. This brief moment establishes a connection between both sides. It shows that the Americans are also people.

But in the end, just what does it mean to find honor in battle? It does not take long before it becomes clear that Iwo Jima is lost. According to the Japanese government, the honorable thing to do would be to commit suicide, but is that really the best option? Kuribayashi struggles with this throughout the film, trying to find an optimistic outcome in the face of defeat. He soon realizes that victory is out the question, and the odds of survival are against him. Eventually he decides that the only logical thing he can do is go out like a soldier and at least make it possible for Saigo to return home to his family. This prompts him to lead a final banzai charge, which is eventually overpowered and defeated, bringing the battle of Iwo Jima to an end.

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