Saturday, February 17, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

I See Flags of our Fathers

Clint Eastwood continues his WWII war drama with Letters from Iwo Jima, the companion film to last year's Flags of our Fathers. Shot back to back, this version shows the same battle from the viewpoint of the Japanese, and if compared to Flags, this is a somewhat more heartfelt, personal story about the pride and honour of the defenders of Iwo Jima.

Flags had its focus on the troops who participated in that iconic planting of the American flag atop a captured hill in Iwo Jima, and having the narrative actually leaving the battleground for a different battle - that for funds - back in US soil. Letters on the other hand, seldom leave the field, only for moments of flashback to build its characters' backstories. And surprisingly, it doesn't mar the flow of the narrative, but rather helped to enhance your appreciation of the characters who are on that island, defending it for most parts because of faith and allegiance.

Face it, not everyone wants to be dumped into a forsaken land with limited resource, to fend off attackers throwing all their might at you. And for these soldiers forming the last bastion to defend a piece of land that would be used by the enemy as a launchpad to attack their homeland, it's their Alamo to fight to the last man in order to do so. And culture, face and pride ensures that this would be done, and watching events unfold, you can't help but feel sorry at times, at their inability to comprehend surrender when all else fails, and salute their honour and spirit in standing their ground.

Letters is played out through the eyes of the commanding officer General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), and lowly footsoldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). It's interesting to note that the far ends of the spectrum are represented to flesh out the narrative, given their different backgrounds, one a career military man, while the other, a conscripted baker. On Iwo Jima their lives get intertwined, and their hearts, clearly elsewhere with their respective loved ones.

Ken Watanabe exudes a magnetic appeal as General Kuribayashi. Being appointed to the much shunted role in leading the Japanese Imperial Army in its defense of the island, he sets out to overhaul the entire defence mechanism, much to the disgust of the commanders on site. If you'd watch Flags, you'll understand what those tactics were, and nod in agreement that well, they do work, and the idea stemmed from being brave enough to break conventions. In fact, his daring out of the box ideas were actually what kept them holding the fort for a longer time than expected, though by breaking out of the comfort zone of his subordinates, it doesn't earn him much support. It's a battle of ideals as culture and tradition go up against being pragmatic. Kuribayashi walks the walk and talks the talk, and it is this kind of commanders that soldiers usually respect.

But amongst the detractors who think that General Kuribayashi's methods are weak, is Lieutenant Ito, played by Shido Nakamura. Movie fans will find him familiar, as the Japanese fighter who went up against Jet Li's Huo Yuanjia in Fearless, and starred in one of my favourite movies of 2005 - Be With You. Here, he embodies the traditional ideals of the Japanese soldier in offense mode, who cannot fathom the idea of defense, and is quick to apply ideals without putting things into perspective. He's not a bad hat per se, but one who represents soldiers who are misguided.

As with war movies, there are moments where the brutal fighting takes a backseat in order to ponder over the commonalities between soldiers at either end, that each is a son, brother, or father, and deep down inside if given a choice, neither would have wanted to leave their loved ones to end up being killed, or to kill. While the character backgrounds help to evoke sympathy for their predicament, it doesn't get too soppy or sentimental, just a tinge to think about, before it moves on.

I like the fact that there are attempts to portray the bad hats, and that they exist on both sides, the Americans and the Japanese, even though this is a movie shown from the Japanese viewpoint. And the score worked wonders to the movie. Simple chords, and with probably just one identifiable theme, it managed to enhance each scene it was played. I thought in this instance, there is beauty in its simplicity, and somehow brought about a sense of calm amidst the chaotic environment.

Clocking at 141 minutes, you hardly feel its length as you'll get engrossed with the narrative. I've always been in a fan of Clint Eastwood's movies, and it's no doubt that Letters of Iwo Jima is yet another quality work from the director. If asked to decide which of his latest two movies is the better one, my vote will go to Letters for the fact that it brought out its themes rather well, and for the cast's ability in making you feel very much for them. Recommended.

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