10 Years: “Letters from Iwo Jima”

With war films, of any variety on any war, sometimes it may seem tough to get behind a certain one. No, it’s not the violent and graphic content, which really could make you react in one way or another, thus changing the experience, but a different feeling altogether. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all. It may not be everyone’s thought, but it’s not too outlandish a thought either. It’s like with biographical films of certain people. There’s only so many times you can sit through the same information before it becomes pointless.

The Warner Bros. Pictures film “Letters from Iwo Jima”, is a sweeping and beautifully made film that does so much more than recount one battle in a major war.

This war film stars Ken Watanabe (upcoming “Transformers: The Last Knight”, “The Sea of Trees”), Kazunari Ninomiya (“Assassination Classroom: The Graduation”, “Aka medaka”), Tsuyoshi Ihara (“Ichi no Higeki”, “Strayer’s Chronicle”), Ryo Kase (upcoming “Silence”, “Haruko Azumi is Missing”), and Shidou Nakamura (“Death Note: New Generation”, “Twisted Justice”).

The film was directed by Clint Eastwood (“Sully”, “American Sniper”) and written by Iris Yamashita. It is based on the book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido.

The film originally opened on Dec. 20, 2006 in a limited run before going wide on Feb. 2, 2007. It would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one; two Golden Globe Awards, winning one and two Nation Board of Review Awards, winning two among several other nomination an and wins.

How have I gone 10 years without seeing this film? I honestly don’t know what kept me from checking it out? It’s an Eastwood film, so that alone should’ve been incentive enough. Although, given my general approach to films over the last five years, and how it’s drastically changed during that time, it makes a bit more sense as to why I have only now gotten around to it. It helps too, that I found this film in pretty good condition at a thrift store. I couldn’t pass it up. As it turns out, it would be a great and cheap buy that would do so much more than entertain me.

For starters, this film quickly and easily transported me. The entire world just came to life and I never tired of seeing it, even when things got terribly violent. The why can easily be found in the film’s various creative aspects. The costumes, props, sets, and even the way the filming locations were used to make I we were on an island. Everything just brought an incredible level of authenticity to it. Life, at that time, was easy to comprehend. With all this detail applied, there was never a way to not feel something. A film like this may have needed to go to these lengths, but it was never wasted. Giving audiences as much of a chance to be there was definitely achieved, and in so many ways, you got to feel a lot more than usual. Finding something to feel for the characters now just became a whole lot easier.

What might not be easier is all of the war related violence and gore. It’s unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not difficult to watch. Of all the things I learned, especially tying into Japanese culture and the mentality of the time, was the lengths these men seemed to go to preserve honor and simply avoid being captured. With my knowledge on Japanese culture being quite limited, I can only go off of what was depicted in this film. So, I can only assume. It wasn’t difficult to figure out the reasoning behind what motivated some of the characters. It was hard to witness, but spoke a great deal as well. So too did all the other violence in the film. Again, it was unavoidable, but in any other director’s hands, who knows if they could’ve gotten it right? It was believable and direct. No attempts at trying to hide the realities of war. And the war visuals never crossed the line. There was always purpose, and it wasn’t to shock or be gratuitous. For that, the reward is that you get a deeper understanding, if not a better one, of the cost and affect it has on so many people. You also just get to be in the film more and more.

Dragging you into the film though, and pulling you along and keeping your interest, which is a huge plus, especially for those who haven’t watched that many films with subtitles, is that of the strong performances from all and the fact that this film is strictly character driven. It’s really one of the best things about a modern Eastwood film. He knows the right ways to bring a fully fleshed out character to life, and let you live in their world for as long as possible. Because of this desire, the slow burn approach can be utilized so well. The few Eastwood films I’ve seen, which is truly a select few, have each amazed me with this style. While it seems like the film drags, I’m never bored. I’m always intrigued and gripped by what’s going on. A credit to all who worked so hard, especially on this film.

And a credit to these actors. This is a film that’s told from the Japanese soldier’s perspective, but it doesn’t simply work or earn the high marks because of this. No, telling this story this way, is actually just the starting point. Everything else lies with the many characters we follow. And each one is as diverse as the next. You get so much insight into who they are, but it’s not just through some narrated letters or flashbacks that show more of who they are. All of this insight, everything that gets you to care about them, comes from the time we spend with them before and during the battle on Iwo Jima. That sounds like something anyone could’ve told you, but somehow it doesn’t play as that obvious. You get so many new perspectives. New ways of thinking about this time.

Through the strict focus on these characters, you also get a major theme. Humanity is examined. Sure the stated purpose of these men fighting was from a different place than our own (for American’s at least), but at the same time, the goals were similar. From there, we got explorations of what this war meant to each person. Why they did it. Did they do this fighting for their country because that was the command? Did they believe as many of their own countrymen? With even another 10 years between, I’m able to find that this film’s message and point is even stronger. I’m able to truly sympathize and look at a bigger picture, one that’s not often explored. I managed to learn something as well. During this exploration of these characters, you also witnessed the extremes these men would go to in order to honor their country, themselves, and no doubt their families. While not all could agree with the decisions of others, which created different types of drama, you saw just how deeply loyalty and friendship ran. If ever there was a way too paint a portrait of those who once were our enemy, and make it clear that they too saw things in a similar way, this was it.

Every now and then, a war film can genuinely surprise me. I go in thinking I’m just going to get some film with loud bangs and booms, but I come away learning a lot more about the types of people involved. The sequences may largely seem accurate, of which I’ll never know as I don’t know my history too well (it’s really that sad), but that’s not as important as how much I can connect to the characters. I want to learn all I can from who they were, and if that’s achieved, it will have been a successful experience.

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