In 1997, Clint Eastwood's film Absolute Power irked the Asian community for its depiction of a thoughtless, insulting Asian stereotype, a waiter in a restaurant scene. Now, ten years later, Eastwood has completely redeemed any questions from that incident with this companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, the flipside of the Iwo Jima conflict told entirely from the point of view of the Japanese. The film opened a few weeks ago in Japan, reportedly to enthusiastic response, prompting Warner Bros to change the release date from February of 2007 to December, qualifying it for awards.
Letters from Iwo Jima is significantly more interesting than its predecessor, not only because it's more focused, but also because it raises some interesting issues of cultural representation. Eastwood seems to have been very careful in his depiction, hiring the Japanese-American screenwriter Iris Yamashita to handle the details (though Westerner Paul Haggis has a co-story credit). Now we have Japanese characters that misunderstand and misrepresent their American counterparts, believing that they're cowardly and undisciplined. But amazingly, Letters from Iwo Jima is still a Clint Eastwood piece, full of his singular bravado.
Ken Watanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha and Batman Begins) plays General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who arrives to take command of the troops stationed on the island, just before the Americans land. It's his job to prepare for battle the best he knows how, but -- since he has visited America and befriended Americans -- some of the troops don't entirely trust him. Another fascinating character, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), arrives as a kind of mini-celebrity, having appeared in the Los Angeles Olympics several years earlier. When the Japanese soldiers capture a young American, Nishi speaks to him and boasts of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visiting his home. We also have our focal point, a baker named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who was snatched up for military duty before the birth of his daughter.
One of the key themes in the film is honor, which we can assume has been very well defined by previous Japanese tradition, but which takes on new dimensions in war. Various soldiers and officers constantly bicker about the most honorable paths to take. When a foot soldier complains that Iwo Jima -- with its infertile black sands -- really has nothing to offer and that they should just let the Americans have it, he is whipped for treasonous thoughts. But later General Kuribayashi intervenes, saying that they can't afford to waste good men on such trifles. In other scenes, soldiers decide that suicide is more honorable than capture. But Saigo, in flashback, makes a solemn promise that he will return home alive. For him, getting to see his baby daughter is the most honorable thing of all.
As with Flags, Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern leech all the bold colors out of the film, save for a few occasional dollops of red, but here the effect is less distracting and more consistent. The tone fits with the atmosphere of the barren island and the hopeless plight of the Japanese fighters. Viewers might expect a few tricky crossover moments between films, but there are only a couple, and they are very subtle. A scene in Flags shows an American who discovers a cave full of dead Japanese, and here we see them, committing suicide by holding live grenades to their chests.
The film's main drawback is the somber, high-minded tone, which also permeates Flags. Both films are very aware of their importance and of the issues they raise, which makes them feel more like sermons than works of art. I don't blame Eastwood for this; I blame the times. For a little perspective, all we have to do is look back to Eastwood's last war film, Heartbreak Ridge, made 20 years ago with an entirely different, comic book, gung-ho attitude. In decades past, it was more socially acceptable to question motivations behind nationality and combat, just as it was acceptable to make a macho, celebratory action war movie.
Looking at past wars requires a bit more care, sympathy and understanding, whereas more recent wars inspire callousness and irony (such as in Three Kings and Jarhead). Trapped and frozen between these extremes, both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima display an obvious lack of energy, a lack of passion. They don't particularly invite subsequent viewings the way many of Eastwood's other great films do.
But this film's major achievement is in the much less discussed arena of cultural representation. Last year a Western filmmaker, Rob Marshall, released Memoirs of a Geisha, which took Western visions of erotic fantasy and imposed them upon another culture (in English no less). Hardly anyone balked, and the film was a hit and a big award winner. Likewise, no one seems to care much about Mel Gibson's clueless portrayal of the Mayans in Apocalypto (one tribe is good and another is evil, with no rhyme or reason). And so Eastwood's stepping up and setting a good example is an achievement that has far more weight than yet another examination of the fruitlessness and stupidity of war.