When American Sniper was released in 2014 and went on to become one of the highest grossing movies of all time, many people were quick to dismiss Clint Eastwood’s movie as a needless glorification of American imperialism and gun culture, associating the American icon with jingoistic ideology – when in fact, the film was a (flawed) character study and condemnation of the culture that enables one man’s fanaticism and belief in killing in the name of God and country. If only more people had seen Clint Eastwood’s previous two war-themed directorial efforts, they would know by now that his cinema is one of empathy, not violence.
In 2006, Eastwood produced and directed two films that dealt with the same situation – namely, the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 – from two vastly different points of view. The first one, Flags of Our Fathers, told the story of the battle’s aftermath on the American side, focusing on the detrimental effects of instantaneous, mass hero worship on the surviving veterans. The second one – Letters from Iwo Jima – however, still to this day remains one of the most unique Hollywood productions about war, with Eastwood choosing to present the actual battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, determined to empathize with the so-called enemy and strip the film of dated clichés.
Letters from Iwo Jima opens with one of the main characters narrating a letter to his wife. As the camera pans from Mount Suribachi to the island’s volcanic black sand, he writes, “We soldiers dig. We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in. Am I digging my own grave?” From the very beginning we get the sense that we are about to witness someone’s most intimate and perhaps last instances and impressions. The faded, sepia-like cinematography gives the film a bleached look, which renders the rocky patches of Iwo Jima even more desolate and haunting. We are left with a group of men, mostly reserve troops, that know they’re destined to be sacrificed for the greater good of the nation. At this point, the war was nearing its end and the Japanese empire had suffered heavy losses all over the Pacific, ranging from Guadalcanal to Peleliu and Saipan. Japan was crumbling and Iwo Jima was one of the last major strongholds standing in the Americans’ way to the mainland: 20,000 men were expected to face over 100,000 American troops. In order to hold off the enemy for as long as possible, General Kuribayashi had his men dig a complex web of tunnels all over the island. Letters from Iwo Jima is a testament to the pride and folly of those 20,000.
The story of Iwo Jima, and how Eastwood presents it, is the story of men who – despite what their code of honor tells them and what military rank they occupy – feel the same things as they ready for battle. The story is about men accepting fear rather than conquering it. It is about men learning to live with fear as they await death to come their way. This is not a John Wayne movie (as Wayne infamously starred in a big Hollywood hit in 1949 titled Sands of Iwo Jima). There is no hero here. General Kuribayashi (played by a formidable Ken Watanabe) along with Colonel Baron Nishi are the only characters in the film that try to put on a brave face. But, they do so not because of pride and courage, but because they feel a responsibility toward the men they lead into battle. They are well aware of the lies regular soldiers are subjected to by their superiors. They know the hard truth: they are to die on this island. But unlike other officers, Kuribayashi and Nishi value survival over death, and know that behind each soldier is a family man, and that this family man deserves to know what he’s getting himself into.
For a movie about war, Letters from Iwo Jima spends large portions of its running time focusing on the inner lives of those defending the island, the so-called enemy. Our central character, the one we perhaps identify with the most, Saigo, is constantly conversing with his wife and his young child in his thoughts. For them, he is willing to dismiss military codes. Saigo is drenched in fear. But, it’s fear that keeps him going and gives him the strength to defy orders and escape helpless situations. “There is no use for a dead soldier,” he says.
Shimizu, on the other hand, is a soldier who keeps telling himself things he doesn’t necessarily believe in. He’s an outsider even to his fellow Japanese. Shimizu’s presence on the island, the real motive for him being there is revealed to us through a painful confession that – had this movie focused on the battle from the American perspective – could have been easily dismissed and forgotten. Instead, Eastwood slows down the action, and allows his characters to emerge from the shadows.
Beneath the layers of pride, honor and sacrifice we find layers of regret, shame and frustration. Because, deep down, every character in Letters from Iwo Jima is frustrated with their own awareness that they are bound to die at some point, and they will do so far away from their loved ones. Will anybody notice? Will anybody remember?
Eastwood argues that yes, even our deepest fears need to be remembered. Like most of his movies, Letters highlights the importance of memory and storytelling. Here we have a garrison of Japanese soldiers helplessly defending a rocky island in the middle of nowhere. They are lonely, they are afraid, they question war, and their own involvement in it, and despite what they might think, as General Kuribayashi orders all letters and documents to be burned or buried, their thoughts and feelings matter. Ultimately, it’s the words they put down on paper that will allow future generations to understand what this island, of all places, meant. Whereas Baron Nishi, a renowned Olympic gold medalist in horse jumping, muses to his beloved horse, General Kuribayashi describes to his son his visits to the United States before the war broke out.
Yet, the most important sequence regarding memory takes place when Nishi orders his men to retrieve a wounded American soldier and treat him despite the men’s protest. Nishi is then able to exchange a few words with the wounded ‘enemy.’ When, eventually, the American dies of his wounds, Nishi finds a letter from the boy’s mother, and reads it aloud to his men. As Nishi reads the letter, about the boy’s hometown in Oklahoma, descriptions of life on a farm, of dogs’ incessant barking, of friends and relatives paying visits, and so on, Nishi and his men cannot help but be affected by the painful truth staring them in the face: this ‘enemy’ is like them. And there is nothing they can do about it.
Having seen Letters from Iwo Jima a number of times, I continue to return to it to seek out empathy and understanding. Eastwood’s movie, coupled with Flags of Our Fathers, is a display of deep empathy in the face of tragedy. It is a display of understanding that encourages dialogue and expression, expression of thoughts and fears which are necessary to tell each other’s stories. Flags of Our Fathers criticizes American myth-making and strengthens the belief that we may not be paying attention to the stories that truly matter. We celebrate them, but we don’t understand them.
In Letters, General Kuribayashi thinks that by removing those letters and preventing the enemy from finding them, he is preserving a sacred vow of silence, a soldier’s secret. In truth, those letters prove that no memory should ever fade. Eventually, they all will at some point, but if we can continue to learn from them, at least for the time being, then we should do so. When Saigo reminisces about the moment he leaned in and whispered a promise to come back to his wife’s pregnant belly before leaving for war, he’s reminded of what the real mission is. The mission is to stay alive, and tell one’s own story. No matter the odds.