I don’t know anything about the enemy. I thought all Americans were cowards. I was taught they were savages.
–Shimizu (Ryo Kase)
“We soldiers dig,” says Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) in a voiceover letter to his wife. “We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in.” He and his fellows are on Iwo Jima, slumped over and pale in the sunlight, their shovels whacking at the black sand in efforts to make trenches. “Am I digging my own grave?” He fears he won’t make it home to see his infant daughter, born after he deployed.
Poetic and pained, Letters from Iwo Jima is a war movie about loss and, almost worse, the anticipation of loss. Conceived by director Clint Eastwood as a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, this reimagining of the Japanese troops’ experience is written by first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita and adapted from General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s letters, collected as Picture Letters from Commander in Chief. Focused intently on the last weeks of their lives, during the 36-day battle with the Americans, the film offers a range of views, from Saigo’s to various officers’, from down on the shore looking up at Suribachi and from up on top of the mountain, gazing out on the forbidding, glorious volcanic beach where the ground troops are instructed to dig. They construct some 18 miles of tunnels, 5,000 caves, and pillboxes. And they wait.
General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) takes the command, reportedly after another refuses it. Characterized by a gentle nobility and carrying a Colt .45 (he spent two years as a deputy military attaché in Washington, DC), the general is immediately suspect in the eyes of more traditionalist officers, including Admiral Ohsugi (Nobumasa Sakagami). Dismayed by the Army representative’s directives — to stop digging trenches on the beach, to set up the tunnels farther back, to treat the men humanely (“Make sure these men get proper breaks,” he tells one captain, “They look like they’re from Mars”) — the other officers hold to their notions of honor, preferring suicide to surrender, and full-on assaults to the general’s schemes of withdrawal followed by attack.
As soon as Kuribayashi arrives, he strikes the other officers as odd, striding from the landing area to Suribachi (“Walking is good for the health!”). His inspections lead to dismay (he sees broken tanks gathering dust) and changes (he evacuates civilians). When 1932 Olympic equestrian medal winner Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) arrives, with a horse no less, Kuribayashi is temporarily buoyed: they share memories of horseback riding and travel, as well as a sense of regret, understanding the war with America won’t end well. And yet, good soldiers both, Kuribayashi and Nishi do what they’re told. Like the men they impress with their reputations and relative kindness, they also “dig.”
Saigo and Kuribayashi’s paths cross briefly and repeatedly. Nearly opposite in rank — a young baker, recruited against his will, and a devoted career officer — both write letters home, Saigo to his wife and Kuribayashi to his son Taro. Each, in his own way, understands what’s coming, and each embodies a certain nobility that is at once familiar from U.S. war movies (they question conventional wisdom and look after their fellows) and unconventional (neither is inclined to the sort of unquestioning obedience displayed by the fierce Lieutenant Ito [Shido Nakamura], who, unable convince anyone else to follow him, straps mines to his body and heads off into the night, determined to find an American tank and lie beneath it to blow it up).
The two stories provide Letters a basic structure, for when the U.S. air assault commences, it cuts between the officers strategizing (and learning that the Navy fleet has been destroyed in the Battle of Saipan, and so, no reinforcements will come) and the men awaiting orders. Occasional flashbacks to life before Iwo Jima break up the inexorable narrative motion, as does the fleeting appearance of an American prisoner, Sam (Lucas Elliott). Retreated to a cave with a small group of men, Nishi orders them to treat the prisoner, though they see him as so “other,” they can’t imagine such a thing. (The medic’s efforts here contrast sharply with what happens to a Japanese soldier who surrenders to the Americans in hopes of surviving.) Nishi speaks quietly, recalls meeting Mary Pickford and encourages Sam to confess he’s from Oklahoma. The kid also carries a letter with him, from his mother, whose instruction, “Always do what is right because it is right,” resonates with the Japanese soldiers, one remembering mournfully that this is exactly what his mother told him.
Such moments can teeter into sentimentality, but for the most part, Letters maintains a nearly austere look, its harsh, monotonish compositions sparked intermittently by bright orange explosions and splats of dark red blood (as when Saigo witnesses a series of men detonating grenades against their chests, images answering a question raised by U.S. soldiers who discovered the ravaged bodies in Flags). And, as much as the movie proposes correspondences between U.S. and Japanese troops’ emotions and ethos, it remains quite unlike most any U.S. war movie in its focus on loss. Even when a U.S. movie considers the loss of a battle (say, Black Hawk Down) or even a war (Platoon), the tone tends to be triumphant: the good cause is upheld, the men find themselves in trauma, or discover some crucial truth about their leaders, leaving open the possibility of individual moral high roading.
Letters does something else, something devastating and timely as the U.S. faces loss in the Middle East. It interrogates the inevitability of loss in war, even when victory is proclaimed, and the senselessness of the effort. (And it’s worth wondering whether an American film could ever show American loss, in the way this American film shows Japanese loss.) It’s not to say that war, as a concept and means to various ends, will ever cease (indeed, advancing technology makes it increasingly easier to wage, as well as more ruinous). It is to say that the social structure that makes war — obedience and chains of commands, discipline and faith — is both necessary and faulty. When the Admiral challenges Kuribayashi’s plan to fight from the tunnels, the general articulates the problem: “The tunnel digging may be futile,” he says. “Maybe the stand on the island will be futile. Maybe the whole war is futile. But will you give up then? We will defend this island until we are dead… If our children can live more safely for one more day, it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island.”
However it’s phrased, the rationale for war is always the future. This is precisely what’s lost to those who fight, whether they come back with memories or don’t come back at all. Letters ends on the beach where it begins, refusing to illustrate a future after loss, concentrating instead on loss itself. It makes war seem too terrible to bear. Saigo winds up alone, found digging by U.S. Marines and throwing himself into a desperate, strangely gallant assault, swinging his shovel at air. The image couldn’t be more perfect.