Pursuant my Asian motif, third film about unpleasantness in the Far East (oh, and the war, too...):
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Ken Watanabe… yeah, and then? Go ahead: name two Japanese movie actors. That’s what I thought (I was gonna say Omar Sharif and Chow Yun Fat, but I think they’re Chinese… or worse).
Clint got away with this because he’s Clint. Expiating the Dirty Harry pentalogy (which is, like, five pictures of the same thing… only different), he’s definitively migrated to the (Two) Third(s) World; where once he played the quintessential dumb, violent, but ultimately decent gringo, now he flays him. Somewhere in the evolution, though, he did pick up some notions of technique if not of narrative. This picture isn’t a bad war movie. Nor unworthy spectacle. It has a beginning, a middle, an end; a couple of followable characters; a ticket to sell. It’s that ticket, though, a feller may find hard to swallow (to mix metaphors).
Shot in grainy sepia, Letters follows the itinerary from initial assignment to ultimate glory of Tadamichi Kuribayashi (variously spelt: Ken Watanabe, who plays The Last Samurai—if Tom Cruise doesn’t—in the film of the same name and who imparts considerable dignity to the role: “The cherry blossom… euuurrk…”), an Imperial (though not imperious) Japanese three-star (I think… even their stars look funny) who in 1944 fetches up with the unenviable mission of redesigning defenses on the first patch of Japanese real estate along the island-hopping route of Nimitz’ remorseless Marines toward Tokyo. How (or why) Iwo Jima (“jima”: Japanese for “island”; “iwo”: “excrement”) came to be a treasured piece of Nipponese territory is a question not answered by the film (or by Nimitz it turns out) though American pilots later swore by the place as a lifesaver set in the sea for planes low on fuel or “coming in on a wing and a prayer” as the old song had it. Kuribayashi (variously pronounced and there might be a “–san” in there sommeres) finds an odd mélange (French for “whole bunch”) of fanatical last-ditchers and weary cynics united in a patriotism both faded and fated: they all expect to die… at the hands of the gringo Marines or at their own if that occasion be denied them. There is such a thing as Honor.
And Honor we’re supposed to take away from this flick, as that noble virtue propels sergeants to flail at recalcitrants with their “spirit sticks,” junior officers to lop off the heads of slackers with sacred swords, gaggles of troglodytic (they live in caves) soldiers to bayonet prisoners (if they’re lucky), and buddies to shoot comrades just a whisker too slow with that suicide grenade. In his earlier companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers much mooed about, Clint drops from the clouds long enough to depict (well… backlight, sort of and only fleetingly) a (lone) Japanese atrocity committed against a (single measly) Marine (guy who drops through the crust of the mountain into a nest of Japanese soldiers and gets—ooopsy daisy—butchered: …but only ‘cause he caught them by surprise, same thing that happen to that idiot bear guy eaten by the benign grizzly on account of everybody knows that a bear won’t bother you unless you intrude upon its privacy… or it’s hungry… or it’s Tuesday… C’mon! It’s a flockin’ bear! It’s not noble… it’s bestial!). One. Single. Atrocity. For Letters (the evolved) Clint delivers in the same vein a (single) scene in which a (single) disoriented Marine is beaten, then gangstabbed in a cave… but then countervails that (single) incident of (understandable) brutality with a tender moment in which the Americanophile count (or baron or marquis or sommat the like) Nichi, Olympic equestrian who’s traveled in the States and speaks States, kneels at the side of a dying Marine, “Sam,” to trade memories of Douglas Fairbanks, and who wants to weep when the kid dies. Who wrote this? Oh… oh… Kuribayashi did? Oh… so, aside from the aberrant (single) act of brutality, we see young Japanese soldiers camaraderily schlurfing down rice and mooning over Kiko back home. Could be our kids. Excuse me while I brush away a tear.
Well, finally, here come the Marines. And Kuribayashi’s strategy of letting them get ashore, then hammering them from defensive positions on (and in) the high ground takes its historic toll. But as the Japanese fall back, depleted and without provision for resupply or exfiltration (they hauled them off Guadalcanal unceremoniously in 1942), it becomes a fight to the death, self-inflicted when suicide charges and last ditch holdouts fail to impede the relentless surge of the (faceless) Marines (Clint gives the Americans no identity and virtually no dialogue in this thing; excepting the hapless “Sam,” there is no communion among the combatants other than… combat). Kuribayashi, a realist nevertheless sworn to duty, leads a last (futile) banzai (Japanese for “10,000 years of life to Ho Chi Minh”) charge, receives a mortal wound, gets lugged off from the field by an adjutant, gets buried in an unmarked grave (after punching his own ticket with that ceremonial 1911A1 gift to him from the gringos in happier days) by the reluctant warrior Saigo (sorry to ruin it for you, but who the hell you think won at Iwo Jima anyhow?), lone survivor left to tell the tale.
A dark film with some marvelous sights and some gifted actors but a faulty premise (cultural relativism) that poisons the experience just as sulfur exhalations poisoned the air over that wretched island. I’ve got sand from Iwo on my desk. Along with a copy of the bushido (pronounced “bushy toe,” or so I hear): Hagakure. Just can’t seem to find that section on butchering prisoners. Maybe check the index…