LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA

In today’s conflicts (Iraq, Palestine and Israel, terrorist attacks…) – combined with constant and instantaneous media bombardment – war has come into our homes on a daily basis. Now, more than ever, issues that would have been shocking to the majority 50 years ago are simply a channel change while searching for something good to watch. The reality of war has been lost. It shouldn’t be that way but it is.

National, religious and cultural trappings invariably have an impact on the people who bring us the news. An American reporter will have a different take on the events in Iraq compared with a French or Iraqi reporter. These approaches tend to separate armed conflict into neat compartments; namely us versus them, the good guys versus the bad guys. War is not that simple but often intricacies and details are overlooked. Remember, every supposed bad guy thinks he is a good guy fighting for his own good cause.

It is this reality that makes Letters from Iwo Jima so fascinating. It is an American film that depicts the invasion and battle for the island of Iwo Jima during the Second World War – from the Japanese perspective.

Seen as the last defense for Japan, Iwo Jima was an extremely important strategic opportunity for both the Japanese and Americans. Unfortunately, with Japanese forces stretched thinly, the troops sent to defend the island were told that they should not expect to come back (they would have no air or naval support when the Americans arrived). Letters from Iwo Jima focuses on a cross-section of Japanese soldiers, ranging from privates through to Lieutenant Generals, and how each copes with the harsh environment they find themselves in as well as examining their lives before the war. This is done through the letters they have written to family members and friends back on the mainland.

I enjoyed Letters from Iwo Jima because it seeks to shatter the perception that war is simply a matter of choosing a side. This is done most effectively through General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), soldiers who have spent time in the USA and formed lasting friendships with Americans. To then be called up to fight against a country you admire and respect is a great conflict for both. Naturally, their loyalty lies with the Empire of Japan – I don’t think the Japanese system of honour would allow them any other choice – but the fact that each is being torn apart by the war is never neglected or glossed over. Eastwood makes a point of highlighting the diversity, influences and layers of his characters – the Japanese men who fought in the war.

The film is shot in a stark, almost black and white style – there is colour but the palette is almost non-existent – which increases the air of tension that the soldiers must have felt while stationed on Iwo Jima. By locking us in to such a reductive colour scheme we get to experience their hopelessness but at times also their occasional hope, especially when a burst of colour makes its way through on the film. It functions almost like a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and Director of Photography Tom Stern must be congratulated for achieving this look.

Letters from Iwo Jima shows Director Clint Eastwood in top form, again, but for all its praises and award wins I can’t help but feel that the Oscar nomination it has received for best picture is a little unwarranted. Don’t get me wrong; Letters from Iwo Jima is a great film but it is a tad slow in places and its scope seems limited (22 000 soldiers were stationed on the island but in the film it feels like 50).

It represents yet another film in the best picture line up for the 79th Academy Awards that shouldn’t really be there. If you’ve been following my reviews you’ll think I’m out to destroy all the Oscar hopefuls in 2007 but that is simply not the case. I just feel that some of the films (such as The Queen) are lacking.

That said, go and see Letters from Iwo Jima; not because it has received Oscar nominations but because it examines war in an intimate, touching and at times humorous manner. It is ensemble acting at its best and another inspired offering from Eastwood.

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