At the outset I must confess that I am a huge fan of war movies. It’s not that I particularly love the whole firing and blood and gore part of it, but what fascinates me about war movies is the sheer practical difficulty of planning and capturing the battle scenes as a film-maker. So late 2006-early 2007 when I first read that Clint Eastwood was planning a dual film project about the famous Battle of Iwo Jima from WW-II, to me it was a double-whammy in more than one sense of the word. As it is I loved Clint Eastwood as an actor, plus the fact that I loved war movies meant that I was in for a treat, and man, both Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima didn’t disappoint at all.
Letters from Iwo Jima is the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima as seen from two Japanese soldiers viewpoints (with a few more viewpoints thrown in here and there), Saigo, a young baker who had been compulsorily conscripted into the Imperial Army and General Kuribayashi, who is very different from any other General in the Imperial Army, in that he actually seems to have a heart and actually cares for his men. This film revolves around how the Battle of Iwo Jima shapes their lives from the time they start entrenchments there till the time the Americans invade and take over the island after one of the bloodiest battles of WW-II.
While this in itself makes for a brilliant war movie, after all, any battle in which 20,000 soldiers die (and fewer than 1,000 soldiers are taken prisoner) is kinda crazy, don’t you think, the fact that Clint Eastwood chooses characters from the two extremes of the Imperial Army to tell this story makes it all the more interesting. While Saigo with his naive country intelligence and reliance on the basic human instinct to survive tells a different story of the battle, Kuribayashi with his worldly-wise ways (from his days spent in the US) and his humane touch to soldiering tells the same story from a completely different viewpoint.
I have always been a huge fan of this ‘non-linear’ method of telling a story in a film, and Tamil movies such as ‘Aayutha Ezhuthu‘, ‘Virumandi‘, and ‘Polladhavan‘ are three such movies which immediately come to my mind. And when names and events such as Clint Eastwood, WW-II and Ken Watanabe come together for a ‘non-linear’ narration of a story, it can only mean good news for someone like me.
The story itself, as mentioned before revolves around how the Japanese prepare for the American invasion of Iwo Jima, how the arrival of Kuribayashi changes the entire attitude of the Army Unit stationed there, how his unusual tactics and management of the army causes resentment and resistance from the other officers of the unit, and how ultimately the Americans win over the island of Iwo Jima. The director uses an interesting medium, letters written by soldiers, to constantly keep moving between the grim present in Iwo Jima and the soldiers’ lives back home before they arrived to the island.
We are told as to how Saigo has left behind a young wife who is expecting their first child, how Kuribayashi has left behind Taro (who we assume is his daughter) with a lot of memories of his US visit, how Baron Nishi (Equestrian gold medalist at the LA Olympics) has to see his horse caught in the crossfire and die, and various other such small events which when put together leaves behind some memorable movie scenes.
This movie is yet another grim remainder to all of us that nothing good ever comes out of humans killing other humans. It once again reminds of the futility of the entire exercise called war and this message is more relevant today than anytime else, considering all the mindless bloodshed that is happening across the entire world.
Before I end this movie I have to mention that this movie is perhaps one of Ken Watanabe’s best performances as an actor. I have to confess that I am absolutely in love with this man and his work. In my books, he takes the same spot as Kamal Hassan, Pasupathi, Humphrey Bogart, and a select few others who manage to bring that something special to characters which leave them in your memories forever. His performances in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ and ‘The Last Samurai‘ still resonate in my brain and I can probably put together a compilation of his scenes in both these movies right now. His performance in this movie is yet again proof of the fact that he is one of the best actors alive whose craft we have been very lucky to watch.
I will surely put up a review of the sister movie, Flags of our Fathers sometime soon.