Letters from Iwo Jima is a Japanese-American war film directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood, starring Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya. The companion piece to Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, this film depicts the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective and is almost entirely in Japanese, although it was produced by American companies DreamWorks, Malpaso Productions, and Amblin Entertainment.
A tiny Pacific island about 650 miles due south of Japan, Iwo Jima would have remained inconspicuous except that the World War II battle over its control (19 February–26 March 1945) turned out to be one of history’s most savage battles. Before emerging victorious, the U.S. Marine Corps suffered 26,038 casualties (6,821 killed; 19,217 wounded) among some 70,000 soldiers deployed, whereas only 1,083 of the island’s 22,786 Japanese defenders survived to be captured: a fatality rate of 95 percent. Honored cinematically by two Hollywood docudramas—Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Outsider (1961)—the Battle of Iwo Jima received renewed attention with Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006). Eastwood’s original intention was to tell both the American and Japanese sides of the story, but as production developed, it became obvious that there was simply too much disparate material for one film so Eastwood decided to split it into two films. The screenplay for Letters, written by Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita, was based on two sources: letters left behind by Iwo Jima’s Japanese garrison commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (1890–1945), and Kumiko Kakehashi’s So Sad to Fall in Battle: An Account of War, also based on Gen. Kuribayashi’s letters. Letters from Iwo Jima was shot right after Flags, and almost entirely in Japanese, despite the fact that it was produced by American film companies, as mentioned. Except for Ken Watanabe, the Japanese cast members were selected through auditions in Japan.
Originally entitled “Red Sun, Black Sand” and budgeted at $19 million, Letters from Iwo Jima was shot over a 32-day period in the spring of 2006. Whereas Eastwood shot the Iwo Jima beach landing scenes for Flags in Iceland (which features black volcanic sand like Iwo Jima’s), he shot the Iwo Jima beach scenes for Letters at Leo Carrillo State Beach in Malibu and had black sand trucked in from Pisgah Volcano, a volcanic cinder cone 321 feet high and 1,600 feet across in the Mojave Desert, about 30 miles from Barstow, California, a site also used for filming. The scenes featuring Japanese-dug caves and tunnels on Iwo Jima were actually shot in and around an old silver mine at Calico Ghost Town in Barstow. A flashback scene that shows Gen. Kuribayashi receiving a gift of a Colt .45 from an American friend at a farewell banquet at what is supposed to be the Fort Bliss Country Club near El Paso, Texas, was actually shot at the clubhouse at the Griffith Park Golf Course in Los Angeles. The battleship USS Texas (BB-35), now a museum ship stationed in La Porte, Texas, was used for close-up shots of the fleet for both movies. Location filming wrapped on 8 April, and the cast and crew then headed back to Warner Bros.’ Burbank Studios, where more interior scenes were shot on Stage 21. At the very end of the shoot, Eastwood, Watanabe, and a smaller group of crew members went to Iwo Jima for a single day to capture the on-location shots.
In 2005, Japanese archaeologists exploring tunnels on Iwo Jima find something in the dirt. The scene shifts back 61 years, to Iwo Jima in 1944. Pfc. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and his crew dig trenches on the beach. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives to assume leadership and surveys the defenses currently set up on the island [19 June 1944]. He saves Saigo and his friend Kashiwara (Takashi Yamaguchi) from a beating by Capt. Tanida (Takumi Bando) for “unpatriotic speeches” and orders the men to start digging underground defenses in Mount Suribachi. Kuribayashi and Lt. Col. Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a famous Olympic gold medalist show jumper, clash with some of the other officers, who do not agree with Kuribayashi’s defense-in-depth strategy. Kuribayashi posits that the American troops will have an easier time breaking through the beach defenses and suggests that the mountain strongholds stand a better chance of keeping them out. Unclean water and malnutrition lead to multiple deaths by dysentery, including the loss of Kashiwara (Takashi Yamaguchi). Kashiwara’s replacement, Superior Private Shimizu (Ryô Kase), comes under suspicion of being a Kempeitai (Military Police Corps) spy dispatched to identify and track disloyal troops. Not long after Shimizu’s arrival, the Americans arrive, overwhelm the island, and attack Mount Suribachi. Ordered to retreat by Kuribayashi, the commander of the Suribachi garrison orders his soldiers to kill themselves rather than concede. However, Saigo flees with Shimizu, and the two decide to battle on. They come upon other soldiers and try to flee the mountain with Lt. Oiso under the cover of darkness. Marines discover them and kill all except Saigo and Shimizu. The Japanese counterattack, but suffer major casualties. The surviving soldiers go to meet up with Col. Nishi while Ito leaves for the U.S. lines with a trio of landmines and a plan to detonate them beneath an American tank. As the battle continues, Nishi is rendered blind by shrapnel and calls on his men to retreat. Nishi then goes into a cave and a gunshot is heard, signaling his suicide. Shimizu surrenders to the Americans, but is then shot by the man guarding him. Meanwhile, a starving Ito succumbs to despair; when found by U.S. Marines, he surrenders. Okubo is killed, but Saigo reunites with Kuribayashi, who plans a final attack. That night, during the attack, most of Kuribayashi’s men perish, and although Kuribayashi is badly hurt, his aid, Fujita, carries him to safety. The following morning, to die with honor, Kuribayashi commands his aid to behead him, but a Marine shoots Fujita before he can proceed. Saigo, after burying some of the documents and letters that he was ordered to burn, comes upon Kuribayashi and, after Kuribayashi commits suicide, tearfully buries him. An American Marine discovers Kuribayashi’s gun near Fujita’s body and tucks it into his belt. Saigo, recognizing the gun, flies into a rage and attacks the Marine and his fellow troop members with a shovel. He is knocked out, and then awakens to see the sun setting. The film flashes forward to 2005, where archeologists finish their excavation and discover the bag of letters that Saigo buried.
Letters from Iwo Jima had its world premiere at the Budokan Arena in Tokyo on 15 November 2006. The movie went into wide release in Japan three weeks later (9 December 2006), ran until 15 April 2007, and grossed the equivalent of $42.9 million: a bona fide box office hit. The film’s commercial (and critical) success in Japan was due to the fact that it was in Japanese, used Japanese actors, and presented a refreshingly respectful depiction of WWII Japanese soldiers—a far cry from the crude racist propaganda of American World War II–era war films or those made in the decades that followed, which were less crude but continued to traffic in stereotypes and often employed non-Japanese actors using incorrect Japanese grammar and non-native accents to portray Japanese characters. Put into limited release in the United States for the Christmas 2006 weekend, Letters from Iwo Jima ran for 21 weeks but, not surprisingly, earned only $13.75 million—a third of the Japanese box office gross. Total foreign sales of $54.9 million, combined with domestic returns, boosted the film’s final take to $68.7 million—almost $50 million more than it cost to make. After Flags of Our Fathers underperformed at the box office, DreamWorks swapped the domestic distribution rights with Warner Bros., which held the international rights. The critical response in the United States matched the acclaim the film received in Japan, with many American film critics naming Letters from Iwo Jima the best film of 2006. The movie also earned a Golden Globe for Best Film in a Foreign Language and received four Academy Award nominations, winning an Oscar for Best Sound Editing.
Reel History Versus Real History
Noriko Manabe (a Japanese doctoral student in ethnomusicology at CUNY Graduate Center in 2007 who is now a music professor at Temple University) offered a summary of Letters from Iwo Jima’s inaccuracies, as catalogued by Japanese bloggers. Acknowledging that Japanese viewers “appreciated the film for its anti-war message, its sentimental story, and its surprisingly sympathetic stance for an American director,” Manabe also noted that “an articulate minority” have taken issue with the film’s historical inaccuracies, for example, all the scenes looked “too clean—those battles, let alone our cities, were far more wretched … Some reviewers commented that Kuribayashi’s assertion that there was ‘no support’ was not accurate, as kamikazes (suicide pilots) had sunk several American warships … Several commented about the unnaturalness of the characters’ behavior and dialogue (‘would a low-ranking soldier like Saigo have used such rough language, in that era?’) Another pointed out, ‘All the mistakes in the customs of the period bothered us. Shoji screens were never used for the front door—how can you knock on paper? And young people had been wearing Western clothing, not kimonos, since the 1930s.” For Manabe, “The greatest concern is that the film fails to explain why the Japanese felt the need to defend a seemingly insignificant island so fervently—the fear that the firebombing of Japanese cities, already devastating to civilians, would intensify were the Americans to gain Iwo Jima as a launching pad for air strikes. In not explaining this background, viewers felt that the film catered to the stereotype of the Japanese as lemming-like fanatics.” Manabe also noted that “viewers raised objections that ‘good’ was being equated with being America-friendly. As one user stated, ‘Only officers who had been to the U.S. are depicted as rational and smart, while all other Japanese officers are evil and barbaric, as per the American stereotype’ (Manabe, 2007). Unaware of the film’s many inaccuracies, most American viewers and film critics embraced Letters from Iwo Jima as a laudably liberal-minded revisionist war film finally humanizing an often-demonized people—which it is, to a significant degree. However, as Ms. Manabe points out, the subtle truth is that, despite its pretenses to the contrary, Letters remains stubbornly Amerocentric in its cultural orientation and ideological predilections