Letters from Iwo Jima
By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
Back in November, I reviewed Flags of Our Fathers for The History
Place. Recently, I watched Director Clint Eastwood's companion piece,
Letters from Iwo Jima. This latter film, though burdened by subtitles,
is the better one, as the Academy Awards acknowledged.
I am not the only reviewer who was struck by the similarity between
this film and John Keegan's classic book, The Face of Battle.
Like Keegan, who gave us an unforgettable soldier's-eye view of four
world-altering battles, Eastwood puts his audience down in the caves
with the doomed Japanese troops. In painstaking detail across more than
two hours, his film fleshes out the 40 days of heroic agony undergone
by the 20,000 imperial soldiers and marines who perished in and around
Ken Watanabe, who distinguished himself in the otherwise-lackluster
Tom Cruise flick The Last Samurai, earned his best-actor nomination
as Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Having traveled extensively in
the U.S., the general recognizes the hopelessness of the Japanese cause.
Still, he insists, if he and his troops can keep their homeland and
their families safe for even a single extra day, then their sacrifice
With a cast of characters that includes a former baker, who wants
only to see the child born after his induction, a comrade doing penance
following his disgraceful dismissal from an elite home-guard, and an
Olympic equestrian champion who brought his stallion to the island,
Letters lovingly develops the humanity of the Japanese soldiers
our fathers and grandfathers faced from 1942 to '45. Their ingrained
sense of honor is in constant conflict with their fears and their longings
for home and hearth. When Mount Surabachi is about to fall, a martinet
lieutenant orders his men to commit suicide. The young baker, whom we
have seen as a loving husband and father in a moving flashback, quavers
between obedience and his individualistic sense of the act's utter futility.
Following the almost-Biblical 40 days of savage battle, the Japanese
general attack that climaxes the hostilities is compelled by the sheer
lack of virtually everything. Not only has the ammunition run desperately
low. The food and water have run out. An NCO hands the young baker a
tin mess cup. "Dig some worms," he tells him.
Much of the story of Flags of Our Fathers takes place after
the battle. The survivors of the legendary flag-raising react to their
fleeting fame in varied ways. Their later life experiences range from
the pedestrian to the tragic.
For the vast majority of the Japanese soldiers there were no later
life experiences. What is more, most of them knew this before the battle
started. In the days leading up to the American invasion, Kuribayashi
and his troops learn that the imperial fleet has suffered an irretrievable
defeat at Mindanao. They stand by helplessly as their air support is
stripped away to defend the home islands. They dig their tunnels, hoard
their water and write their letters.
The letters mostly never leave the island. But thanks to the ever-resourceful
young baker, they survive to be discovered 60 years later by Japanese
archaeologists. Kuribayashi's letters and drawings actually did survive
to be published as Picture Letters of Commander in Chief, one
of the main sources for the film. In reality, many of them made it back
to his family before communication between Iwo and the home islands
Eastwood takes another modest liberty in depicting Kuribayashi's fate.
While it's assumed that he died leading the final banzai charge, testimony
from the handful of surviving witnesses was contradictory and his remains
were never definitively located. An assumption is that he removed all
insignia of rank before the last charge. Suicide and 'fragging' by one
of his own men remain remote, but not undisputed, possibilities. Eastwood
gives us a moving denouement that may or may not be accurate.
At Iwo Jima, some 20,000 Japanese troops faced off against approximately
100,000 Yanks. Only 296 imperial troopers survived the encounter. Eastwood
is said to have considered 'Lamps Before the Wind' as the title for
his film. The inspiration came from one of Kuribayashi's letters, this
to his son, in which he wrote, "The life of your father is just
like a lamp before the wind."
Thanks to Clint Eastwood's 'magic lantern,' Kuribayashi and his heroic
soldiers take on new life. That we come out of the theater caring as
much for them as we cared for the GIs in Flags of Our Fathers
is Eastwood's way, I presume, of driving home to us the real tragedy
Rated R - For graphic war violence.