Monday, January 15, 2007

Iwo Jima Times Two

Clint Eastwood deserves considerable credit for taking on the challenge of making two movies about the historic Battle of Iwo Jima: FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS from the U. S. viewpoint and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA from the Japanese perspective. Both films emphasize the sacrifices a soldier makes for his country. But, surprisingly, the latter film is the most impressive of the two.

With its devastating battle sequences and fine performances, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA helps us understand what it was like for the Japanese soldiers in those underground tunnels and caverns where they made their stand against an enemy that significantly outnumbered them in troops and firepower.

Ken Watanabe (from MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) portrays General Kuribayashi, the savvy Commander who developed a brilliant strategy enabling his men to hold out much longer than anyone expected. The film, in fact, is based on letters Kuribayashi wrote during the battle. Watanabe lends dignity and depth to this key role and is supported by an excellent group of Japanese actors, including Kazunari Ninomiya, as Saigo, a soldier who is just trying to stay alive in order to return to his wife, even when many of his comrades are committing suicide.

A great deal of this movie takes place underground in a long system of tunnels that formed the inspiration for tactics Kuribayashi created. Consequently, we get a little taste of the cramped feeling the Japanese soldiers must have experienced. And people who have seen FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS are given a dramatic look at the other side of the battle.

Watching these two Clint Eastwood films made me feel extremely sad about the 26,000 lives lost in the Battle of Iwo Jima, no matter which side they were on. And, even though subtitles bother some viewers, I think it was a good idea for the actors to speak in Japanese here because it enhanced the realism of this extraordinary movie.


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