Thursday, January 25, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima

by jaydro
Three words: Japanese Hamburger Hill. That's probably an unfair assessment, given that Letters from Iwo Jima is a far superior film to that late '80's Viet Nam War film, but once the battle action started I was having much the same feelings that I recall from when I saw Hamburger in a theater (and haven't seen it since, btw)--this disquieting feeling as the bloodshed grinds on and on and we see characters fall away one by one.

Letters is an astonishing film: an American film with an almost exclusively Japanese cast speaking Japanese and retelling the story of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II in sympathy with the Japanese, when previous narratives have at worst demonized them and at best made them faceless automatons (even so in the companion film Flags of Our Fathers). It is a straightforward story well-told and well-acted, and that sums up its power. There may even seem to be a few war-movie clichés, but watching this film you just accept them without question.

While there were nods to John Ford in Flags, the pre-battle scenes on Iwo in Letters seemed so eerily like some Japanese films of the '50's and '60's that I thought director Clint Eastwood must have been channeling Akira Kurosawa (and that makes for some kind of going beyond full-circle doesn't it?). The film has even more color drained from it than Flags did, and when situations get especially grim it seemed to go almost completely black-and-white.

Letters is asking the question: what is it like to be the "bad" guys on the losing side? What happens when you prize honor and dignity and know you are in a situation where you are going to be killed? Letters provides some explanation for some of the more extreme actions taken by the defenders of Iwo.

The cast is uniformly excellent in their roles, and I thought Ken Watanabe's tightrope-walking portrayal of a decent commander who is also dedicated to his country was as complex and nuanced as one could hope for (too bad he wasn't as larger-than-life as Idi Amin).

However, I think Flags of Our Fathers was a better film, and it puzzles me why Letters should be receiving more accolades. Those I saw it with, who also thought Flags was excellent, thought Letters was better, but admitted that part of it was the novelty of the Japanese point-of-view--if it had been a similar story told with Americans then it wouldn't have been as good (is this why Japanese critics might prefer Flags?). I thought Flags was a more complex and deceptively subversive story, told in a way that makes one question American culture, but perhaps its unsettling nature and/or the way it was so entwined with aspects of patriotism that some viewers seemed to take at face value has been its downfall. Let me put it this way: I knew the concept of Letters and came away with pretty much what I expected, but Flags was a great surprise to me even though I had been clued in to how it was going to critically examine celebrity and heroism. I can see watching Letters one or two more times, but I would like to see Flags several more times. I can't wait for the DVD boxed set.



Blogger Nick said...

Those I saw it with, who also thought Flags was excellent, thought Letters was better, but admitted that part of it was the novelty of the Japanese point-of-view--if it had been a similar story told with Americans then it wouldn't have been as good (is this why Japanese critics might prefer Flags?)

That's a very probable explanation. That would be awesome. If so, great explanation! Even if I still think some sort of politics are involved.

Man, I can not wait until this thing comes here. I'll have like a double feature all booked and ready for it, though that might entail seeing a Flags dvd rip, but a buddy just bought an enormous home screen, so maybe I can persuade him to screen Flags one afternoon, and then head right on over to see Letters on an even bigger screen. But hopefully one crafty cinema or other will have a double bill ready by the time this arrives.

1/25/2007 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

And, dude, I think I might have found a solution to your sometimes disappearing blog comments. Same thing happened to me just now, no comment published, but then I right clicked on the comments screen and chose 'Back'. Then the post got sent, somehow.

I think, I'm not sure. Might just have been some lag in the network.

1/25/2007 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Finally saw it yesterday. Not sure what took me so long except that I suppose on some level I had to force myself to go.

It's a tough movie for me to form an opinion about. There's no question that it's a well acted, fully realized film. I wouldn't say that it's in any way a bad movie.

But ... I think your friends' point about the novelty of it being from the Japanese point of view is a good one. On a certain level, it felt very routine - there's a battle, people die, other people sit around and question the use of it all. I didn't think that the filmmaking was particularly novel or interesting in this regard; it was just a war movie.

I certainly appreciate the approach Eastwood takes here, and his ability to base an American studio film around perspectives that have been ... rare in American studio films. On the other hand, though, this is an approach that could only be considered new or profound in Hollywood. People have been making movies about the common humanity of both sides during war practically since the cinema began. Hell, just last year Joyeux Noël took the idea and made it seem downright banal.

So I guess I'd say that I respect the movie but can't muster any real enthusiasm or admiration for it.

1/28/2007 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Maybe I'm misunderstanding a bit what you're saying, Brian, but I don't think a war movie about the common humanity of both sides is all that rare in American studio films nor is it considered new or profound in Hollywood, but I guess it's uncommon enough. (I just watched The Sand Pebbles for the first time last night, btw.)

While you're right that stripped of the trappings of the story it's just a war movie (and hence my Hamburger Hill comparison), I thought that it was noteworthy that Letters was taking the Japanese side of something as charged and historically one-sided as the battle for Iwo Jima. I don't think there's even been a Japanese film about it, has there? The only thing I can compare it to are the Japanese-produced segments of Tora! Tora! Tora!, but that has a whole different tone. But otherwise you can compare it to Hamburger or even A Bridge Too Far (but we all know how that turned out in the end). This all makes me even more curious now about Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, a film I've been meaning to see forever.

And Tora! reminds me that people had been expecting Flags and Letters to pair up something like the separately-produced but integrated halves of Tora!, but then Flags turned out to be as much (if not more) about life after the battle than the battle itself.

Two small moments in Letters stood out for me: I'd never before seen the main characters in a film watching formations of bombers approaching with bombs falling while we never see the "heroic" perspective from the bombers, nor do I recall seeing the main characters being surprised by the sudden intrusion of a flame thrower into their bunker without us seeing the source of the flame thrower. Two small things, but they stuck with me.

1/28/2007 03:59:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Maybe I'm misunderstanding a bit what you're saying, Brian, but I don't think a war movie about the common humanity of both sides is all that rare in American studio films nor is it considered new or profound in Hollywood

Maybe you're right, and I'm willing to take your word for it. You're probably better versed in the relevant film history than I am - I should avoid overly broad statements like that because I just don't know enough about it.

On the other hand, if the novel approach isn't even all that novel, I'm not sure what the film is really supposed to be offering. It's a thoughtful, well made war film, and that's nothing to sneeze at, but as time passes, I'm afraid that I'm finding it less and less fulfilling.

Two small things, but they stuck with me.

I don't precisely recollect, but did we get the bomber perspective in Flags? I'm pretty certain that we got the flamethrower perspective, so I thought that moment in Letters was more or less a direct reference to the earlier film. In other words, I think we did see that perspective, it was just in a different film. Similar to the way that we heard the suicide grenades in Flags but didn't see it until Letters.

A final question that I'm forced to ask after watching the two films ... it seems like a dumb question, but was Iwo Jima really all that interesting of a battle in the grand scheme of things? Obviously, because of the photo, it had a big effect on the American side. And regardless of the problems I have with Flags, I do appreciate Eastwood's attempt to strip away the mythology around that event.

But aside from that, it seems rather dull. If Letters is to be believed, the American force was pretty overwhelming, and the Japanese had this pretty well figured out in advance. In fact, from the Japanese side, it doesn't really even seem like it was all that important an event - just another in a string of Pacific battles. Maybe that's why you can't think of a Japanese Iwo Jima movie? And also why Letters feels somewhat familiar and routine?

1/28/2007 11:20:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

I don't think we got the from-the-bomber perspective in Flags, and you're probably right about the flamethrower, though I don't recall specifically, but to see it in isolation like that was striking to me.

Iwo Jima was a big deal, even without the photo. The Americans expected the battle to be over in a few days, and it took a month. I think this was the first time that Japanese defenders were cut off from their homeland and fought to the death, and American casualties were much much higher than expected. It was also the first time that a foreign power had captured Japanese soil--the flag-raising was seen as quite demoralizing to the Japanese defenders, and I didn't think this was shown to much effect in Letters. This battle and the even grislier invasion of Okinawa that followed made the planned invasion of the main Japanese islands something almost too appalling to consider.

1/29/2007 12:06:00 AM  
Blogger jaydro said...

As I said I can't wait for the DVD boxed set, and I noticed that the DVD of Flags released today, which I would have bought otherwise, was a bare-bones release being sold at what I consider a special-edition price. I hear a special edition will come in the spring and then the box set with Letters in time for Christmas. *sigh*

Between this and the man not wanting me to see The Good German it's enough to make one put on an eye patch and hoist the black flag.

Makes me appreciate the release scheme of Bubble all the more.... I'll friggin' pay for it if you'll just sell it to me! :-(

2/06/2007 03:55:00 PM  

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