Under the Sands of Iwo Jima

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

"Letters From Iwo Jima" is a necessary movie; too bad it's not a great movie.

The first major film made by an American -- Clint Eastwood -- to tell the story of the war in the Pacific from the Japanese point of view, it's most valuable as a massive correction. German soldiers have long since been readmitted to humanity since their participation in the great adventure in death known as World War II, but for many reasons -- race is perhaps one of them; less insidiously, so is timing -- that gesture has never been afforded the Japanese soldier.

Since that December morning in 1941, the Japanese soldier has been viewed as a little bucktoothed four-eyed psycho of kamikaze Bushido. "Letters" changes all that. It starts and stops on "sulphur island," that flyspeck of volcanic ash so close to the mainland (760 miles) that it's formally a part of the prefecture of Tokyo, and where on Feb. 19, 1945, two divisions of Marines came ashore in what would be one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The figures tell the story: More than 6,000 Americans and more than 21,000 Japanese died in 35 days of fighting. There were about a thousand Japanese captured.

It's that last one that conveys an image of fight-to-the-death pathology among the Japanese grunts. It was common for the hopelessly outnumbered and surrounded, to say nothing of starved and sickened, Japanese to commit suicide (the movie depicts, horrifyingly, the grenade as weapon of choice) rather than face the eternal shame of throwing their rifles down and raising their hands. But the movie makes the point, over and over again, that this self-extinction was enforced from above, a brutal dictate of the Japanese warlord class who had taken over the government. The poor regular guys: Their attitude toward pulling the pin and holding the little crenelated cylinder to their chests was no different than yours or mine, as in: No, thanks, I'll skip this grenade stuff if it's all the same to you.

The movie, like Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers," isn't really a history of a battle, and it frankly could have used both a timeline and a few topographic indexes. You'll learn more who-went-where-when in five minutes on the Internet than you do in the exhausting 2 1/2 hours of this film. To Eastwood, it's mostly men in tunnels hoping they don't get killed today, even if they know they will tomorrow.

The film's framing device is a modern-day excavation by Japanese archaeologists probing the now-deserted fortifications of Iwo, in which a sack of mail, undelivered, is uncovered. The movie -- script by Iris Yamashita, who was Paul Haggis's assistant during his writing of "Flags of Our Fathers" -- then uses the recovered letters as vessels by which to float through the last five months of preparations and battle. The view is kaleidoscopic, from the commanding general and his staff to a group of draftees who keep asking "Why me?" even if they never get an answer.

It helps enormously that the Japanese command staff on Iwo Jima was unusually colorful. The general in charge was Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe), and like a cliche from a '40s war movie, he'd actually spent five years in the United States before the war and knew it well. Though a brilliantly educated military aristocrat, he was by nature a writer, and wrote dozens of letters from the island home, many of which the movie quotes for their wit and humor. Still he was all soldier: He devised the battle plans, which involved massive fortification of heavy weapons and allowing the Marines to land and congregate on the beachhead and immediately inland before opening fire. After that, the battle became a huge skirmish, as small, disconnected units of men hunted each other.

The director depicts another colorful character, Japanese Lt. Col. Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), also with American connections: He won a gold medal in the '32 Los Angeles Olympics in a riding event and socialized with the Hollywood equestrian set. He likely knew more movie stars than any of the Americans invading the island!

But the more moving stories are those of the reluctant infantrymen. Though a few noncommissioned officers are portrayed with the samurai zeal to throw themselves before the treads of an American tank and blow it to smithereens with a mine clutched to their bosom, the more common rank and file are just boys who'd rather be somewhere else.

Eastwood follows one squad assigned to one cave on Mount Suribachi. Our Everymen are Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), who have something Japanese infantrymen have never had in American movies: pasts, lives, families, kin, hopes, dreams, desires, and no particular hurry to die. When the volcano is overwhelmed in the early days of the battle and the Marines place their famous flag (the Japanese hardly notice), the few survivors, among them Saigo and Shimizu, try to scuttle in the only direction possible, across Marine lines to the ever-dwindling Japanese positions at the other end of the island. This gives us a Cook's tour of hell, as the young men, just like those in "Flags of Our Fathers," scurry through a surrealistic warscape, devoid of features and vegetation, shooting and getting shot at.

For a few larger tapestries, "Letters From Iwo Jima" shares with "Flags of Our Fathers" the massive but convincing computer-generated invasion day spectacle, with Marine Corsairs scudding over the hellish landscape to strafe and rocket the suspected Japanese positions. But mostly we are with the men in the caves. They almost never see Americans, just as "Flags of Our Fathers" documented the truth that the Americans almost never saw the Japanese.

In the last half-hour, the story, like the Japanese, loses its way; lacking any clear-cut goals except survival, the movie becomes repetitive. Unlike more narrative-driven movies (such as "Saving Private Ryan," with its imposed melodramatic structure of opening engagement, building tension and final battle), the more experientially oriented "Letters" simply becomes an ordeal by confusion and bad luck.

It also demonstrates the cruel whimsy of war: No good deed goes unpunished and no bad one goes unrewarded. Prisoners are shot, heroes looking to die gloriously are captured in their sleep, moments of savage cruelty follow or precede moments of stunning tenderness. It shows what we all know and we always forget: War is pretty much a terrible business.

Letters From Iwo Jima (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extremely graphic battle carnage.

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