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Letters From Iwo Jima – The Struggle To Do The Right Thing.

Posted by intellisg on February 14, 2007

Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives on the infernally hot, barren, lunar landscape of Iwo Jima to prepare for the imminent Allied invasion.

Over the horizon, more than 100,000 enemy troops are racing full speed towards the final rumble. With barely 22,000 men, faced with dwindling supplies and an outbreak of dysentery, Kuribayashi eventually junks all notions of fighting a text book war. He knows only too well the mathematics of strategy allow him only to plan a guerilla type strategy. This war is one that requires him to take advantage of the natural fortifications afforded by the mountains.

His new plan receives nothing but disdain from his staff officers who, apart from failing to grasp the reality of the situation, still harbor hopes of being able to win the war. Here we, the viewer are presented with the stark differences between those who simply see the world as it is and those who only wish to see what they want to see. It’s a disagreement that seethes silently throughout the film, compelling the viewer to ask repeatedly, “don’t they all know how it’s going to turn out?” Against this backdrop, the viewer eventually comes to sympathize with the cultist when we are reminded of the awesome and brain leveling power of propaganda and how the senseless and nonsensical can be rendered logical. Japanese troops are repeatedly told that the Americans are weak and lack moral and spiritual fiber. Commanders keep on belting out clichés of valor and extolling the virtues of an honorable death in service of the Emperor (whose buck toothed govt issue photo smiles on supremely as they drop dead like flies).

Alongside this, truncated mini-dramas discreetly flash back to homely scenes before the characters found themselves in Iwo Jima, reminding us all that these were once actually real people.

The one scene which spoke about the madness of war was when Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simpleton baker whose dread of death borders on the comical, is informed by the local postmaster that he has the privilege of dying for his emperor. Meanwhile, his neighbors, family and friends to congratulate him while he looks on in a dazed and glazed dream state. (With neighbors like that who really needs enemies?)

Once the battle finally begins after a comatose inducing lull, the war plot manages to locate all the standard milestones of a war story – the loss of innocence, human desperation, fear mixed with sweat and of course the horror. But unlike Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” the battle scenes do not form the main montage. Rather, they are designed to unravel the lies men are content to tell themselves from time to time: such as rubbishing the whole notion of a “honorable” death, along with valor, courage etc. One recalls the words of Gen. George S. Patton in 1944,

“Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a battle by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

Seen on a broader canvas, it’s a vindication for the rest of humanity that all soldiers over the world, no matter what their creed, nationality and religion are all the same. We all have fears, we all want to live and there is no such thing as an honorable death, not one that is resilient enough to withstand the first report of gun fire at least. After that all the propaganda, gongs, trumpets along with the flag waivers go down the chute.

Magnifying “la effect” of art, “letters” definitely leverages some of its current power from the fact that the United States has been embroiled for almost four years in a war in Iraq. It is a war defined by more military debacles than successes at the ground level. Commanders have to frequently accomplish the seemingly impossible with woefully limited resources which their political masters are either inept to fully understand or choose to ignore for political mileage. It’s a tragic play on the “last man standing,” one that harks back to dichotomy of the clear thinker versus “the forces that.” When Kuribayashi says, “the high command have been lying not only to everybody but also us,” we come to face to face with the great lie.

It’s a lie, “letters” allows us to share in as the camera swoops low and lighting dims, highlighting the battle map and the strained features of Kuribayashi as he mulls over his options. His old friend Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) has let him in on a little secret their superiors keep neglecting to mention: The Imperial Fleet were wiped out in the battle of Leyte, so Kuribayashi can forget about reinforcements from air or sea. Kuribayashi realizes that he has been tasked to lead a suicide mission.

There lies the shattered dreams of “letters” as we are told in the map room scene. It’s one that doesn’t even offer the Hollywood time honored saving grace: redemption. In its oppressive depiction of the cruel necessities of war, the film explores the deeper nuances of how men and boys come to terms with their impending doom: “what do desperate men do under desperate situations? Do they buckle and simply give way to the oppressive force that confronts them? Or do they find a way to rise above it all?

“Letters” opens up a hall of mirrors of psychological motifs. To me this isn’t simply a visceral depiction of Spielberg meat grinder horrors of war as in “Saving Private Ryan,” where fear is juxtaposed so clearly against fear. Nor is it an epic attempt to humanize the slit eyed stereotypical image of the Japs as they are so often depicted to be by Hollywood. It’s about a far deeper struggle, between the man who we are all supposed to be and the one that others want us to be and which one really comes through to claim the “I” in the faceless, “We.”

Shimizu (Ryo Kase), the guy who everyone loves to hate in the group, former Kempeitai (thought policeman) whose background causes his fellow soldiers to regard him with paranoid suspicion- recounts one heart rendering flashback scene where he has to arrest a family for not flying the national flag (see how lucky we all are in Singapore). His boss commands him to take an irritating barking puppy to the back of the house to put it out of its misery. In this scene, we experience the sinking feeling first hand as the camera deliberately adopts a point of view narrow 50mm angle, one which puts us directly into his shoes. Looking on is a child who senses the end. The thought policeman hesitates, he fumbles with his pistol, looks again at the child who has begun to cry, and training his gun at the puppy, he cocks it, Only to fire a shot in the air. Later on his boss discovers his treachery and he finishes the job himself. After that, the thought police man is promptly issued a one way ticket to Iwo Jima for his insubordination.

This is the scene that really brings all the loose threads together for me, not the war scene nor the melodramatic drivel with the samurai sword nor all the macho michiko talk. It’s one that totally transforms our impression of the thought police man and even endears him further. It reminds me of the humanistic message which A.C. Grayling once wrote about: when he described the human struggle between right and wrong – one where a young man, Hans Scholl, who with his sister Sophie was executed the Gestapo after their arrest for opposing Nazism, was moved to resistance by witnessing the maltreatment of Jews. One day in the prison camp, he gave his Red Cross ration biscuits to a Jewish girl. The girl had thrown the rations back at him because she knew he was a German, but he picked it up. And this time plucking a flower, he placed on the rations and laid it before her feet. After a moment’s hesitation she accepted them, and put the flower in her hair.

This story is emblematic of how people who struggle still manage to find the courage to remain human despite the corrosive climate of their environment which attempts to leach out the last remaining traces of humanity from them. I am not referring to even the big struggles either like climbing a mountain or taking that drop off with a mountain bike at 100 mph. Sure those sort of things require courage, but sometimes even the simple act of waking up every morning requires a higher quality of courage because there is no apparent end to it all. It just goes on an on, like an endless litany and there is where the terror sharpens and the fear is heightened. To find the courage to be patient with a loved one or to simply remind ourselves to see the good in others when all the world wishes us to do is to hate them for no other reason because they may be so different from us, or because it gives us the right of passage to join a clique. It’s an ancient Manichean struggle, waged internally and privately away from the prying eyes of others, where we ourselves are the sole witness. And though the world may be there, we all know we are all alone and in this place where our courage labors no end to do what is still right. It’s an honorable struggle, one that is full of hope for all canines and the rest of humanity. That for lack of better reason is why “letters” remains a compelling film.

As an American woman’s words in a letter to her dead son read in “Letters in Iwo Jima.”

“Do what is right because it is right.”

(By Harphoon / Reflect / EP-Ver:9901292-2007 / The Brotherhood Press.)


10 Responses to “Letters From Iwo Jima – The Struggle To Do The Right Thing.”

  1. pumpman said

    Brilliant review harphy makes ST look like a kindergarden read.

    Its a nice valentine sappy true to the bro spirit.

  2. Pumpman said

    Dear all,

    This is the first year in the brotherhood where there will be no valentines message from darkness.

    Our deep space fleet is currently engaged in a battle for our very survival in the Orellian sector.

    It does not look good, we have lost most of our cruisers. This may be our last transmission. Orders have been given to ram our enemy cruisers. We still do not know who they are.

    These people are serious, they are out to wipe us out.

    This may be our last transmission.

    Long live the brotherhood!

    3rd class Pre-science officer / interspacing guild 3 stage diplomat.


  3. Pumpman said

    Our server have been ravaged in HK, NY and Paris by unkown assailants.

    We are powerless, I am issuing an auto destruct under ordinance 16 of the instellar Act Primus 39932 /

    You will all obey this!

  4. Harphoon said

    No ordinance 16 will not be necessary, let me comsat darkness as to how serious the matter is.

    Meanwhile all switch over to combat mode, comm

    Switch over to military mode!

  5. darkness said

    No need for ord 16. I will defeat them. LOL, outpost cont as you are doing.

    Be coooooooooooooool!

    Meanwhile broadcast this to our enemies, everything stays same, no combat or military mode, just cont doing what you r doing.

    Broadcast this to our enemies:

    I will vanquish them, I promise u all! Thats the valentine message this yr.

    We will survive!

  6. misanon said

    Hello Harpoon

    I want to share something with you. I hope you dont mind, if I remain anon. Recently my dad, who I was very dear to me passed away from cancer. I felt alot of guilt after his passing. A million things went thru my mind abt what I should have done and said. Reading your review, when you said,

    “sometimes even the simple act of waking up every morning requires a higher quality of courage because there is no apparent end to it all. It just goes on an on, like an endless litany and there is where the terror sharpens….”

    This words gave me a deep spirited sense of comfort by bring closure to an issue that has always haunted me and my husband, now I realized I did do all that I really wanted to do to ease his passing. I was courageous.

    I have want to tell you, you are very gifted, many people can write, but not many can write from the heart. it just feels right. For many years, I never came to the net, because there were too many immature people here spouting hate and anger for whatever reason. Many of us have returning to reclaim our right to read, we have a right to read. Thank you for bringing reason to our world.

    However, I still think your postings need to be closer i.e less gaps between post, that is a small thing la

  7. guppy said

    Happy valentine space boys, as usual someone has stolen someones toy ray gun, space ship or whatever that I simply choose not to understand because believe it or not most of us still have our feet firmly planted on the ground! Just in case all of you havent noticed.

    Yes, they write very well and with a certain attractive charm that is definitely very addictive and for some reason goes very well with coffee and croissants. If you dont believe me just try it, everyone does it on my floor where I work.

    I agree many of us older and more mature readers are reclaiming our right to read. I have been passing the message along. I also feel the gap between one post and another is far too long. For some reason you lose the mood, like eating a coursed dinner, the interval timming between dishes shouldnt be too long, neither should it be too hurried. Pls consider this.

    Where may we all ask is bambie bad boy these days?

  8. helen said

    Nice one straight from the heart. Thank you very much. This is my first time here, it is a very nice site. I agree with some of the commentators, there are not many places mature people can visit these days in the net. I am very happy I found it here, pls keep it up and how does one go abt buying a space here?

  9. piranhapride said

    I like harphy boy as well, I like the way he writes, straight from the heart and his sincerity just comes right through it all. Like bambie bfr he became cunning, crafty and money minded.

  10. Dan said

    Clint Eastwood, an American, directed this movie which presents the Japanese side of the conflict sympathetically. Americans are able to examine their own history in a thoughtful and retrospect way. Americans strive to understand their enemies, rather than demonize them forever. This is what I like about American culture, and what I don’t like about some other cultures…

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