Ken Watanabe as General Kuribayashi, the officer commanding the defence of the island

My reaction to Letters from Iwo Jima is one of mild disappointment and confusion. I can see that it is a ‘well-made film’ and it held my interest for its long running time, but I wanted a clearer sense of what the film was trying to do. Because of its overwhelmingly positive reviews in the US and its apparent popularity in Japan, I guess I have to question my response and attempt to explain it.

I tried to be as objective as possible watching a Clint Eastwood film. In the 1960s and 70s I was a strong Eastwood fan, but I was disgusted by even the concept of Heartbreak Ridge in 1983 and the only Eastwood films I’ve paid money to see since are Unforgiven in 1991 and Space Cowboys in 2000. So, I wasn’t looking for Eastwood the great American director. Rather, I was intrigued by the Japanese story. We rarely get to see any of the Japanese films about the war in the Pacific in UK cinemas. Based on soldiers’ letters and a recent book, the script for the film promised something different.

The film seems to me to offer three different narratives. The slightest is the overview of the Battle of Iwo Jima, accomplished with some rather unconvincing CGI of the American fleet and its powerful air support. This could have been better explained, I think – or perhaps it is assumed that the rather specialised American audience and all of the Japanese audience already know the precise strategic importance of Iwo Jima in the defence of Japan. Much of the information about the state of the war is given in the exchanges between the Japanese defenders. I know a fair bit about Japanese history, but I needed more than was offered here.

The second narrative is a familiar ‘war is hell, but it’s also exciting’ combat film story. I confess that I didn’t find this to be particularly interesting, but it does create a potential problem in the presentation of the other two stories. A full three hour movie about the battle itself with large scale action sequences would have produced a very different kind of film. The much smaller scale action sequences we do get are related to the third story – the story about the ‘beginnings of the end’ of the Japanese prosecution of the war against the Allies (OK, mostly the US). This story is told on a personal level through a small group of characters. Now this was potentially a riveting story and I felt the other two stories got in the way.

We learn something about a handful of characters – the officer commanding the defence played by Ken Watanabe, two of his junior officers, one an aristocratic Olympic equestrian the other seemingly a representative of the right-wing elements in the Japanese officer class, and two privates. One of these is the second lead played by Ninomiya Kazunari, an example of that East Asian phenomenon known as the pop singer who can be a serious actor. He’s certainly very good in the role of the reluctant private surviving the war in an almost magical way – rather like the Good Soldier Schweik as my companion in the cinema suggested. (This is not a direct comparison, but Saigo, the Japanese private does seem an archetypal figure in the squad.) He is counterposed by Shimizu, the genuine ‘good soldier’ suspected of being a spy, but actually undergoing punishment for not being sufficiently ruthless as a member of the kempeitai (the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo). These characters are sufficiently different in terms of background and ideology to enable quite a sophisticated analysis of the response to impending failure in the Japanese armed forces. Unfortunately, what we get doesn’t go far enough and it is frustrating. I suspect a Japanese audience may get much more because of their greater background knowledge as well as access to colloquial language.

The final question for me is the American attitude to the events in the film. It is noticeable that two of the ‘positive’ Japanese characters have been to America and can speak English and that the capture of a wounded American soldier is the basis for a sequence demonstrating that the Japanese needed to learn that the Americans were not monsters, but ‘human’ like the Japanese. Of course, there is a ‘real’ basis for all of this. Nevertheless, I felt that that the final shot, which if I remember correctly is of the Americans on the beach ‘cleaning up’ after the battle as the sun goes down, does suggest that the world is a better place for American military power. Again this was almost certainly the case in 1945, but its re-affirmation now is ironic at best. Is this film about the American or the Japanese response to events? To be fair, several American reviews do rehearse arguments about the unusual appearance of an American film about failure/losing the battle – albeit not an American loss in this instance. Brits are of course quite used to narratives of loss and failure, which we often find more involving.

The film is ‘bookended’ by contemporary archaeologists discovering the ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ never sent home to Japan by the commanding officer. This device possibly refers to Saving Private Ryan, but it reminded me more of the South Korean movie Brotherhood (Taegukgi) (2004). In that film the bones of one brother were presented to the other, who at one point fought for the ‘other side’. It would have been interesting if Saigo, the ‘survivor’ of Iwo Jima had gone back to visit the caves he fought in. Overall I found Brotherhood more shocking in its visceral violence and more intriguing/involving as a story. (It was a very big hit in South Korea.)

My main hope is that the success of Letters will prompt Japanese filmmakers to make similar films themselves (or distributors in the UK to obtain rights to existing films about the period). I’m fascinated by national cinemas in which the exploration of relatively recent history is an important cultural project. A few days after Letters from Iwo Jima, I watched The Lives of Others, but that is another story.