War is hell for the enemy too

Times Staff Writer

Clint Eastwood says he wanted to make a movie about the way war intrudes and destroys young lives, and in “Letters From Iwo Jima,” youth is seen sacrificed in huge, bloody, burned numbers.

Japanese youth this time. “Letters” is Eastwood’s Japanese-language companion film to the critically praised but commercially tepid “Flags of Our Fathers,” completing the 76-year-old director’s gamble that that he could make two different movies, telling two different stories, from the same moment and place in history.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 29, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
‘Letters From Iwo Jima’: An article in Friday’s Calendar section about the Clint Eastwood film “Letters From Iwo Jima” said the fighting on Iwo Jima in early 1945 was a battle for an island that would bring the U.S. within bomber range of Japanese cities. The U.S. already had been within bomber range since 1944, with the capture of the Marianas (Saipan, Tinian and Guam). Iwo Jima was considered a potential U.S. base for fighter planes that would protect the bombers.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
‘Iwo Jima’ actors: In the Nov. 24 Calendar section, a photo caption that ran with a story about the film “Letters From Iwo Jima” transposed the names of actors Masashi Nagadoi and Ken Kensei.

Using the backdrop of the early 1945 battle for an island that would bring the U.S. within bomber range of Japanese cities, “Flags” shone a klieg light onto the dark art of wartime propaganda, casting America’s World War II leadership in cynical hues.

But the Japanese made only rare cameos, mostly just to die, horribly. So Eastwood shot a second film, approaching the collision of forces from the Japanese perspective. “Letters,” which was previewed in Japan last week and will start a limited run in U.S. theaters Dec. 20 in time to qualify for the Oscar race, is the claustrophobic view of combat from the carved tunnels and caves of the other side, and it tries to bestow humanity upon soldiers that Hollywood has always treated as a faceless enemy.


“The great futility of war is explored in this picture,” Eastwood says.

There is much that is unusual about “Flags” and “Letters.” It is rare enough for a director to have two films in the same year battling each other for an audience, let alone Oscar consideration, with Warner Bros. promoting “Letters’ ” Oscar run and DreamWorks and Paramount backing “Flags.”

It is rarer still that one is in English, the other in Japanese -- both of them subtitled. “I’m now a Japanese director who does not speak Japanese,” Eastwood says.

But Eastwood’s real radicalism rests with the stories these films tell (“Letters” in particular), which challenge the accepted narrative of the Pacific war that has endured as a balm for both sides for more than 60 years.

The result of Eastwood’s efforts is a double shot of antiwar passion from a man whose conservative public image didn’t suggest that he would be caught running with the Michael Moore crowd. Listening to Eastwood bemoan the futility of war is a bit like watching Cagney’s gangster cry in “Angels With Dirty Faces”: It may be morally right, but it jars with what you thought you knew.

“It’s not that you shouldn’t defend your country,” Eastwood explains last week in Tokyo, where “Flags” has received glowing reviews and stayed near the top of the box office in the three weeks since it opened. “But I just think you can say to a younger generation, here or anywhere, that there must be a better way to live than to send 18-year-olds to go die somewhere.”

In “Letters,” Eastwood’s Japanese warriors are a mix of the brave, the brutal and the scared, men who love their mothers and miss their children. They argue about tactics and whether their best shot at survival is to fight or surrender. But the movie is also built around an extraordinary man: Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a brilliant, American-educated soldier, worldly and wise enough to know that he and his men are being fed to the superior firepower of the U.S. Marines with no hope of victory or survival.

To Americans, the brutality of the island-by-island campaign and the incineration of Japan’s mainland cities were tragic but unavoidable consequences of a war forced upon them by Japanese aggression. The war’s coda was a free and democratic Japan.


To the Japanese, the devastation that followed their military adventurism was so catastrophic that few want to sift through the history for an explanation. The period is simply commemorated as a time of great civilian suffering, reduced to a pacifist mantra that all war is bad.

There has never been a Japanese movie about Kuribayashi. And the hell of Iwo Jima in winter 1945 has never wooed Japanese filmmakers. “None of my Japanese actors knew anything about Iwo Jima,” Eastwood says. “You lose 21,000 people! To just ignore them. What would happen if we did that?”

But until now, Americans have also seemed content with the version of events laid down by Hollywood in 1949 and engraved on the culture by John Wayne’s rough-but-heroic Marine sergeant in “Sands of Iwo Jima.” That orthodoxy has not been cracked. Even the critics who admired “Flags” and its dissection of the American propaganda machinery seemed to regard it as an indictment of the current Bush administration, not of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Harry S. Truman.

“When I grew up, everything was propaganda; we all thought that the Japanese tortured and killed people,” says Eastwood. “But it’s tough to swallow that everybody was that way. After all, some of the Japanese have a decent soul.”


That was the message Eastwood took to Japanese politicians and veterans when he petitioned for permission to shoot on Iwo Jima, which is now a Japanese military base closed to civilians.

“He told us he would not make a simple war movie,” says Yoshitaka Shindo, Kuribayashi’s grandson, who met with Eastwood to hear what Hollywood had in mind. “He said he would make a human drama about those who fought to protect their loved ones.”

The movie follows Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya, a pop star in a Japanese boy band as well as an actor), a young baker conscripted to defend Iwo Jima but whose only interest is surviving so he can return to see his newborn daughter.

Through his eyes we get a portrait of Kuribayashi, a brilliant military tactician whose humanity comes though in the letters and drawings he sends home to a family he knew he would never see again.


“When you read Kuribayashi’s letters, you see a caring father, worrying about his kids’ education, telling them anecdotes about Boston and Harvard in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, and you see he’s like every other father,” Eastwood says.

“I felt I had met my grandfather for the first time,” Shindo said after watching the movie.

Kuribayashi may have known he was going to die, but he wasn’t about to go down without a fight. His creative strategy of fighting from underground hide-outs turned Iwo Jima into a vicious ambush for the American Marines. The result was carnage: 6,800 American dead; about 19,000 wounded.

Such ferocious fighting meant that sometimes humanity could also be lost. Eastwood’s film shows atrocities, including American atrocities.


“Well, that happened a lot,” says Eastwood. “I talked to so many Marines who were there, and I’d say: ‘What did you do with the prisoners?’ And they’d look at me and go: ‘We didn’t have any prisoners.’ And I’d say: ‘Oh. OK.’

“No military is immune from that kind of stuff. So I thought: Why not have a real scene?”

But “Letters” also shows Japanese soldiers extending kindness and aid to a captured American.

It is a representation that critics may seize on to accuse Eastwood of distorting the record of a war in which far more Allied prisoners died in Japanese hands than the reverse.


Eastwood says he has no illusions about the nature of the enemy Americans were fighting. He describes how, in preparing to shoot the films, he read Iris Chang’s book “The Rape of Nanking,” which documents a rampage of rape and murder by Japanese troops during the subjugation of the Chinese city. The images were so horrific, Eastwood says, that there were nights he couldn’t read the book.

“I’m not trying to make them all out as powder puffs,” he says. “The Japanese were tough, a tough enemy to have.” And wars will always be with us, he says. He’s not a mushy critic of every war, he says, just a hard-nosed realist about what happens when one starts. It’s the political manipulation behind the lines he hates, which accounts for his opposition to the war in Iraq.

“I was never one of those who advocated traipsing in there,” Eastwood says. “But I’m also a guy who thinks not every country is ready for democracy. I think the administration was slightly naive to think every country just can’t wait for democracy.”

His anger comes with the awareness that some mother’s child pays the price of political adventurism.


“Maybe it’s idealistic,” he says. “But most Americans who see this picture will like it because it isn’t a cliche. I don’t think they’ll object, because it takes you down deep emotionally.

“And if they don’t like it, what can they do to me? Call me an idiot? I just made it the way I thought.

“All I can do is put it on the screen. And if they don’t like it, they can walk out and go across the hall to see ‘Borat 2' or whatever.”