Movie review - Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima, the sister film of ‘Flags of our Fathers’ details the story of Japanese men fighting to retain the Iwo Jima Island. Located at a strategic point, Iwo Jima was attacked by the Americans in the WW 2 to enable easy access to the Japanese mainland.

Within the first few scenes of the movie, the stark contrast in the mood between Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima becomes apparent. The American side had sent a huge flotilla into battle, the impressive columns upon columns of ships providing a sense of grandeur in the former movie. The Japanese side, on the other hand, was already losing and starved for weapons and people and would face the advancing American troops with less than fifty tanks and no air or naval support. The American soldiers thought they were going back home at the end of the battle. The Japanese soldiers knew they would have to stay and defend the island till the last one of them died. This is what makes Japanese General Kuribayashi’s (Ken Watanabe) attempts to lead his team among the fear, bravery and confusion so very touching.

Kuribayashi arrives at Iwo Jima to find soldiers digging trenches in the beaches. Having stayed in the U.S. for a few months, he and Lt Col Nishii are among the few who appreciate U.S. technological capability. Realising that the question is not about defeating the American troops, but holding them back for as long as they can, he shuns the traditional war fare technique of fighting the landing American fleets on the beaches. After investigating the island, he forms an unconventional strategy of attacking from hidden spots. He orders his men to dig caves and tunnels from which to shoot without being attacked themselves.

The movie essentially captures two perspectives. General Kuribayashi portraying how lonely it is at the top. He knows more than anybody else that his death is a matter of time. He still resolutely marches on preparing to fight a lost battle using limited resources and demoralized men. Most of his men find his strategy too non traditional and reeking of ‘American sympathies’. They also don’t understand why he insists that they should not honourably commit suicide when their posts are captured. Instead he urges them to join other posts and continue the battle. Dysentery in the island has already brought down the morale of the troop. As the battle progresses, some of the troops take their fates into their own hands, laying to naught any strategy.

The other is of a fictional character, a baker turned soldier Saigo. Brought into a battle he does not understand or want to fight, he blunders on, saving his skin by twists of fate. Saigo is shaken when his friend dies of ‘honourable dysentery’. He suspects a colleague of being an imperial spy to unearth any disloyal thoughts. The traditional Japanese honour is visibly lacking in him as he curses the battle, refuses to commit Hara Kiri and at some point thinks of turning deserter.

The paths of Kuribayashi and Saigo cross several times in the movie. In the end a wounded Kuribayashi dies in front of Saigo after confirming the island is still Japanese. Saigo is captured by the Americans. Desperately but sincerely he tries to fight for the first time to recover Kuribayashi’s gun from American hands.

The story is of underdogs, so tear jerking opportunities are aplenty. There are a few scenes placed for tugging at your heart strings – Japanese soldiers giving scarce morphine to an American PoW and an American soldier killing Japanese deserters, both nationalities acting contrary to reputation. Lt Col Nishii reading a letter written to an American soldier by his mom where you can almost smell the apple pie. Yet the melodrama is reigned in well. Some scenes are touching. Some are not. There are no overt scenes of bravery. The movie is somehow practical in it’s portrayal of how soldiers would behave. The pace is also faster than Flags of our Fathers. The interesting bit is how cultural conditioning can sometimes make it impossible to think out of the box (Strong MBA course material here).

Worth watching if only to get a sense of how a war is fought on the ground by common soldiers. Don’t expect scientific guidance on how to fight a war or any celebration of the fact that 21000 Japanese men kept the 100000 strong U.S. forces at bay for 35 days.

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