Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima is one of those movies where you barely notice the filmmaking, precisely because it’s so smooth and professional throughout as to not call attention to itself. The pacing, the cinematography, the positioning of the cameras, the editing choices of when to go to close up and when to show which character—it all hangs together so you realize at not even necessarily a conscious level that you’re watching the work of people who know what they’re doing.
The movie tells the story of the battle for the island of Iwo Jima in World War II from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers defending the island.
Two (related) things stand out about the film that I could see people—Americans anyway—finding objectionable (though I could see others finding one or both of them refreshing).
The first is the main theme of the film, which is that there’s really not much difference between the soldiers on one side of the war and those on the other side. The Japanese “grunts” have to cope with unreasonable officers, difficult conditions, separation from their families, fear of death, and all the same things the American soldiers are dealing with. They’re mostly just following orders, the way soldiers do. They’re human beings, not monsters. They’re “us,” not “them.”
The one exception to this depicted similarity is that a lot more Japanese in the movie are willing if not eager to kill themselves for reasons of honor than would be true of Americans. Not just in cases like a kamikaze pilot being willing to die in order to take even more of the enemy with him, but even in ways that are militarily deleterious. Like if they just lost a skirmish, instead of making the most of the opportunity to fight again since they’re still alive, many of the Japanese want to immediately kill themselves to atone for losing.
But leaving aside that one difference, the claim is they’re basically regular folks that we should readily recognize from a million and one movies about American soldiers, just in different uniforms and speaking a different language.
So how accurate is that?
Certainly there’s at least some truth to it. The common tendency for people to assume that “the enemy” has to be slaughtered precisely because they’re not “like us” and cannot be dealt with any other way is an ugly and extraordinarily harmful part of human nature. They aren’t totally different. They aren’t monsters.
On the other hand, certainly some sides in some wars are more fanatic, more inhumane, more apt to commit atrocities, more convinced of their own superiority and right to kill and enslave people than other sides. Think of the Europeans of centuries ago arriving in new worlds and instituting genocide, the slave trade, etc. There is not always a precise moral equivalence between both sides in a conflict, where all the combatants are just “regular folks” in difficult circumstances.
So what about the Japanese in World War II? I reread Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” recently, and one of the things that’s striking about the book is how the Americans in the Pacific theater so often insist that the Japanese were indeed an unusually fanatic, vicious, frighteningly “other” kind of adversary. They were close to unanimously in favor of Truman dropping the atom bombs on Japan, because the last thing they wanted was to have to tangle with these people and their trashing of all rules and customs of war on their home turf.
The interviewees pretty consistently speak of the Japanese more in those terms even than the Nazis.
I think the distinction would be that whereas the Gestapo and the people running the death camps and such were shockingly evil, the members of the regular German army were not drastically worse than soldiers of other times and places. By contrast in the Pacific—at least according to the perceptions that seem to have been commonplace among the American soldiers—the regular Japanese army was more like the Gestapo than like the German army in their cruelty and fanaticism.
So, either this movie misses the boat in trying to convince us that the Japanese are just like us, because in fact they were more malevolent and more prone to commit atrocities, or this movie is especially needed because that false attitude is so prevalent in America—including among those who fought in World War II—that the Japanese were singularly vicious and inhuman when in fact they weren’t.
I won’t pretend to know which is the case, though I’m inclined to say the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. That is, in terms of cruelty, and committing war crimes, and targeting civilians, and so on, there was not a strict moral equivalence between the sides; the American grunts (or the Allied troops in general) were “better” than the Japanese grunts (or the Axis troops in general). But on the other hand it was not to any huge degree. It’s war; both sides did horrific things.
So the movie maybe goes a little far in the direction of “We’re all the same under the uniform,” but is not too far from the mark.
I don’t know though. I wouldn’t be shocked if I were wrong about that in either direction.
The other thing that some viewers could find objectionable besides the general depiction of the Japanese soldiers in this movie as being largely indistinguishable from American soldiers in conventional war movies, occurs when the armies confront each other, and in parallel situations each side captures one or more prisoners from the other side.
I would say here too they’re depicted as equivalent (on both sides, some angry and frustrated soldiers are inclined to abuse or kill their prisoners while cooler heads or just more humane soldiers want them treated as the Geneva Convention would require), but in another sense the Americans actually come out worse, because they do indeed murder their prisoners.
Again, I think the movie’s depicting both sides as having a roughly equal mixture of attitudes, where who dies is a matter of luck and timing rather than one army being vicious monsters and the other retaining their humanity, but I’m sure a lot of (American) viewers will interpret it as claiming Americans were more evil and more apt to commit atrocities than Japanese, and that’s going to be hard for them to swallow.
The scene with the prisoners, by the way, is one of the most intense and effective in the movie. The other that stood out to me is the killing of a family’s dog in front of the family in a flashback in Japan because it was barking when the military was requiring everyone to remain inside and quiet.
There are definitely moments like those that got to me. But I wouldn’t say I was consistently drawn in by Letters From Iwo Jima to a high degree like that.
A lot of it’s just that war movies have to reach a higher threshold with me. Most of the time—including here—they just serve as a frustrating reminder of the utter insanity of the human race in its penchant to send large masses of people off to slaughter each other. It’s frustrating because it’s not teaching me anything, not waking me up to some new realization, not converting me to an antiwar philosophy.
I already hate war as much as I’m capable of hating it, I already know I want no truck with war, I already am immune to all the efforts to get me fired up to “support the troops” every time my country insists on fighting yet another war, I’m already a pacifist, I already know the human race is insane and likely to cause its own extinction, and I already know there’s not a damn thing I can do about that (beyond what I’m already doing by refusing to add my tiny little bit of incremental support for war).
So when I see even a well done movie about war—which this one certainly is—it generally feels like I’ve thought all this stuff through enough already and there isn’t much point in engaging with it yet again.
Still, this one’s a little different from the run of the mill war movie in encouraging us to see the enemy as human too, to counteract the routine demonizing of the other side in war, and it’s to be commended for that (with my earlier caveats in mind).
Bottom line: Letters From Iwo Jima is good, not great, for a war movie, but I’m at a point in my life where war movies don’t do much for me.