Clint Eastwood is one director I really admire. Yet I had never had a chance to see Letters from Iwo Jima, the other half of his film Flags of Our Fathers, telling the story of the Japanese soldiers, when it came out. On the other hand, I had reviewed the other film for a local daily and really, really like Adam Beach’s performance. It was heartbreaking.
Letters from Iwo Jima is in Japanese, played by Japanese actors, led by marvellous Ken Watanabe, about a true event where the Japanese soldiers laid their lives fighting against the American. And the film is directed by an American, who, as sources claim, do not understand Japanese.
Against the backdrop of this paradox, Letters from Iwo Jima is a monumental achievement, and you must give the credit to Eastwood as a director. He was never better than he is here, and in BluRay video, the film looks astonishing.
Yet, it is the human drama that touches you, not the photography, which is of course brilliant, especially in the underground scenes. In Flags of Our Father, Eastwood examined the politics of war, and its affect on individuals, especially on those who cannot process it or fail to make sense of it, like Ira Hayes.
Letters from Iwo Jima concerns the collective fate of a group, under a commander who is compassionate, yet rigid, and the soldiers are “not to ask why, but to do or die,” like the soldiers in Tennyson’s poem.
Dying is an important Japanese ritual. It may be difficult for an outsider to understand and comprehend the essence of it, but Eastwood succeeds in internalising the effect.
Writing about Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), American critic Roger Ebert said, the major problem of the film lies in how Japanese actors and Europeans actors respond to a particular situation. The method is different, and Oshima fails to create a cohesion between the two approaches. You cannot say the same thing about Eastwood, and for all its intend and purposes, Letters from Iwo Jima is a Japanese film, perhaps more than Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1965).