Movie Review: Letters from Iwo Jima

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu   1/3/14
This is a WWII flick with a difference. It shows the preparation for and landing of U.S. forces on Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective. It is a long film running 140 minutes with Japanese dialogue and English subtitles.

The opening scene takes place on Iwo Jima around 2006 in a man-made cave which the Japanese military had hollowed out for defensive purposes prior to the 1945 invasion. A group of people, who appear to be historians, are digging around the cave when they come upon some type of “find” buried in the cave’s floor. Before showing what this is, the film flashes back to June 19, 1944, the day a new commander arrives on Iwo Jima.

The film’s two main protagonists are the infantryman Saigo, who was a baker in civilian life, and General Kuribayashi, a historical character who was sent to Iwo Jima to prepare for and counter the American invasion. Neither is a stereotypical Japanese and view the war somewhat differently than their comrades.

Saigo is an unhappy ground pounder whose bakery shop was basically bankrupted by the authorities’ demands for the war effort. When it appeared things could not get worse, he was visited by his local draft official and various gung-ho female war supporters who congratulated him on his induction to the army and therewith his privilege to serve the emperor and Dai-Nippon. As Saigo’s wife is pregnant with their first child, the blow is particularly hard.

Through his eyes, the audience is able to see the boredom, stupidity, violence and misery a Japanese conscript had to endure on the volcanic blight called Iwo Jima. In an early scene, Saigo is grousing about the futility of the war to one of his comrades. This is overheard by their Capitan who commences to beat them with a cane for their defeatism and near treachery. (I am pretty sure this type of incident was not uncommon based on first and second hand stories I heard while I lived in Japan over thirty years ago.) While the Capitan is beating the two soldiers, General Kuribayashi approaches and asks the Capitan if “you haves so many soldiers that you can afford to lose these two?” When the Capitan replies he doesn’t, Kuribayashi orders the Capitan to stop and in future be smart in disciplining his men by doing something such as withholding meal rations for a period of time as beating them to death would not be helpful.

To my mind, this scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. On the one hand there are the “typical” Japanese soldiers, including officers who are so regimented to a certain mindset that they have difficulty seeing past it. On the other hand, Saigo and Kuribayashi who are outsiders are forced to accept the situation even though they both know it is futile. The difference is that Saigo has no belief in what they are doing, while the General is bound by his “Bushido” code to do his utmost to defeat or delay the enemy even if he does not believe he can win.

On one level, the film is about the Japanese preparation for, and battle against, the invading Americans. But the writers have used an interesting device of letter writing by Saigo and, more importantly, Kuribayashi to express thoughts on the war and demonstrate what is important to these men. One of the main purposes of this device and the film is to show the audience that men at war, whatever side they are on, have similar desires, wants and loves.

One point which I found particularly interesting is the way Kuriyabashi was subtly undermined by some of his subordinates. In the movie, he was dropped into command of the island without a supporting staff of officers who he knew and could depend on. Therefore, he had to rely on underlings from both the navy (which had an acrimonious relationship with the army) and army who were unable to agree with or even understand what Kuriyabashi was trying to accomplish. These men were schooled in the senseless “bansai” mentality of mass frontal assaults, which arose from the shame of losing combined with the glory of dying for the emperor. This mentality was most clearly demonstrated by Lt. Ito who disobeyed a direct order to withdraw his men from Mt. Surabachi and join the remaining Japanese forces for a protracted defense in the north of the island. Ito found this cowardly and intolerable thus, in a fit of pique, told his men that he was not going to follow such spineless orders. He slung two or three anti-tank mines around his neck and told his men he was going out and find an enemy tank under which he would throw himself and die honorably. He leaves his men without a leader and departs, looking for glory. After searching for hours without any success he finally falls asleep among corpses. When he wakes up, he is disenchanted and gets rid of the mines strapped around his neck. The next we see of him is when he is awakened by Marines who take him prisoner.

Most in the West have a picture of the Japanese who are robots following superiors’ orders without question. While this may be true to a large degree, there is a strain in the Japanese psyche’ which produces Ito types, who for internal reasons are quite happy to go off the reservation and rebel, sometimes in a quite destructive way. Perhaps this is triggered by the fact that Japanese society can be so constricting that it causes some people to break. Maybe these people exist in every culture, but they stand out in Japanese culture precisely because it can be so smothering. In any case, although the result of the battle was never in doubt, the implication is that men such as Ito through their individual, egotistical actions helped to undermine the Japanese cause. Was he a proto-Japanese Libertarian?

What eventually happened on Iwo Jima is well known. We won, they lost. But not before Kuribayashi led a well planned final assault on enemy positions causing substantial loss of American lives. In the movie, he is seriously wounded and commits suicide with a pistol which had been a gift from American officers who knew him during a three year sojourn in the USA. He requests, Saigo, who happens to show up at this moment, to hide his body so no one will find it. Saigo does this and is taken prisoner by American troops shortly thereafter. Interestingly, Kuribaysahi’s body was never identified after the actual battle.

The movie ends with a return to 2006. The scene shows the historians uncovering the item found in the opening scene. It is a cache of letters from Kuribayashi to his wife, which had never been sent. The letters were placed there by Saigo at Kuribayashi’s order before the final battle took place. I will leave it to the reader to interpret the symbolism of those letters.

This is a film worth seeing. • (2277 views)

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10 Responses to Movie Review: Letters from Iwo Jima

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Oliver North described in his memoirs checking the contents of the pockets of a Viet Cong officer his men had killed, and comparing that to what the VC might have found if the roles had been reversed.

    It would be interesting to see if my housemate needed the subtitles; as I recall, she didn’t when we watched Tora, Tora, Tora.

    As the war continued, the number of Japanese who surrendered increased, though it was always very low. Ito’s initial actions in the movie seem to fit the particular form of disobedience in the name of fanatical nationalism called “gekokujo”, which John Toland discussed in The Rising Sun. Note, though, that while bushido mandated fighting to the death rather than surrender, it allowed retreating to fight another day in more favorable situations (consider their pull-outs from Guadalcanal and Kiska — in the latter case, the US actually landed on the island and suffered some casualties from mines and booby-traps after the Japanese withdrawal).

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That review makes me want to watch this movie all over again.

    I had seen this movie soon after it came out on DVD. Probably in 2007 or 2008. Clint Eastwood did an outstanding job as a director. This is definitely one of those movies, like “We Were Soliders,” that strives for realism and there’s very little, if any, of the usual Hollywood action-movie shtick.

    Certainly my vision of the typical Japanese soldier in WWII is of the banzai variety. Given the highly gung-ho and militaristic nature of Imperial Japan – and their long string of murders and atrocities, as well as amazing military successes in the early going – I would suspect that that trait would have at least been common among the officers.

  3. steve lancaster says:

    It is indeed an excellent movie. If you want to understand the Marine view of Japan from Guadalcanal to A bomb I recommend E. B. Sludge, “With the Old Breed”. It is factual, often gritty but accurately sheds light on the war in the Pacific.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I knew a Marine who landed on Iwo Jima and when the Marine to the left of him and the Marine to the right of him were killed yet he was not touched, he figured he had a guardian angel.

      He re-joined for the Korean War and made the Inchon landing. His lasting memory was of stepping off the landing craft into the filthy (at least) knee deep mud and people puking from the rough ride to the landing zone.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Thanks for the book recommendation, Steve. That book has excellent reviews at Amazon.com. I’ll put it on the Bookshelf (which is this site’s growing suggested reading list…you’ll find a menu item for it at the top of the page).

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “while bushido mandated fighting to the death rather than surrender, it allowed retreating to fight another day in more favorable situations”

    True. An interesting study of how far this could go is the story of the 47 ronin. These samurai planned the avenging of their master and waited almost two years for the right time to strike. After succeeding in their task, they committed ritual suicide. Some Japanese say this was not bushi as they did not take immediate action against their master’s killer, even though the odds of gaining success would have been almost nil. I suspect these are the same people who would have been all for the crazy frontal attacks in which hundreds if not thousands could die. Perhaps noble but futile.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      These attacks often started out as serious efforts. At Tarawa the Japanese might have won if they’d counterattacked the first night, but they didn’t (perhaps because their commander had been killed); by the time they did it a couple of nights later, it was too late and only led to slaughter at the hands of much better equipped foes. Similarly, at Attu the Japanese at the end (when their defensive situation was hopeless) slipped through the US lines to attack and hopefully capture the US artillery park. They got there, but an engineer battalion stopped them, and their counterattack degenerated into a suicide attack.

  5. steve lancaster says:

    Kung,
    My father was at Guadalcanal, Pelieu, and Saipan. In Korea he was with Chesty Puller at Chosin. I never knew the man he was before the war, and I only understood why he was the way he was when I returned from Nam.
    Semper Fi

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Bad things come in threes. My retired family doctor was also at Saipan and said it was a horrible filthy place.

      In the 1970-71 I worked with an ex Marine who had been in Recon around 1968-69 as I recall. He was certainly a little jumpy. When a balloon burst across the store aisle, his reaction was automatic. He immediately focused on where the sound came from. He had a few “interesting” stories to tell.

      I think all Americans owe a great debt of gratitude to anyone who served in the armed forces, especially if the service was in a combat situation.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I had a great-uncle who served in the Pacific, and said that he still had nightmares occasionally, and couldn’t watch war movies lest they come back. He still rejoined the Army long term after the war and served about 20 years (even meeting his wife, another long-term volunteer, there).

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