A parallel history

Special to The Times

FOR a lot of Americans, the battle of Iwo Jima, the classic World War II conflict explored in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” is remembered as one of the hard-fought Pacific battles that led to the eventual defeat of Japan. It’s perhaps best known as the struggle immortalized in the iconic shot of the raising of the American flag over Mt. Suribachi.

Eastwood had planned to focus solely on the American story and its aftermath, but as he was developing his film version of the bestselling book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, he became intrigued with the plight of the 20,000 Japanese soldiers who had burrowed into the island’s volcanic rock to await their fate at the hands of the invading Marines. That group, left on the island in hopes that they could forestall an invasion of Japan, was subject to some of the most savage fighting of the war. When the 39-day battle was finally over, fewer than 1,500 are thought to have survived.

Eastwood found himself drawn in particular to the story of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who had been given the hopeless task of defending Iwo Jima and delaying the American advance in what amounted to a suicide mission. And in one innovative stroke, the director, with producers Paul Haggis and Steven Spielberg, decided to develop a Japanese version of the Iwo Jima story from the Japanese solder’s point of view, to be shot in Japanese and released as a companion to “Flags.”


For this unusual project, the team tapped an unlikely writer, Iris Yamashita, a novice who had come to Haggis’ attention through Creative Artists Agency’s Cathy Tarr. Yamashita’s screenplay, “Traveler in Tokyo,” had taken first place at the Big Bear Lake Screenwriting Competition, where Tarr had been a judge, and she forwarded a package of Yamashita’s scripts to Haggis, a CAA client. Favorably impressed, he set up a meeting for a project he was working on -- the Japanese version of the Iwo Jima story.

“I had absolutely no knowledge of the battle of Iwo Jima before my agent contacted me about this project,” says Yamashita, a second-generation Japanese American with conversational knowledge of Japanese. “To prepare for the meetings I read a lot of books, watched a couple of History Channel segments, and rented ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’ with John Wayne. I had also done a lot of research on Japan for my screenplay ‘Traveler in Tokyo,’ which is set on the eve of World War II. I definitely think that helped with getting some perspective on the Iwo Jima film.”

At their second meeting, Yamashita gave Haggis her take on the story -- and Haggis gave her the job. “I didn’t really understand the idea at first,” she says. “My agent called and told me she thought they were going to do a companion movie for release on the ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ DVD. As I was going over the outline with Paul, he told me that the film was actually going to be released in theaters.”

“Flags” opens Friday, and Yamashita’s film, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” will open in Japan on Dec. 9. The film, distributed by Warner Bros., is scheduled to debut in the U.S. on the first quarter of 2007.

“As a first-time writer, I just couldn’t believe that my first screen credit would be the result of a collaborative effort with Paul Haggis and Clint Eastwood and that the whole project was also being produced by Spielberg,” says Yamashita, who received a master’s degree in engineering from UC Berkeley and took an interest in writing while at UC San Diego. “I got very excited at that point and called my parents to tell them about the movie, and they asked me, ‘Who’s Clint Eastwood?’ ”


‘Paul just left me alone’

HAGGIS stood behind Yamashita, despite some outside concerns about her lack of experience. The pair met at his office about once a week for three weeks, putting together an outline that covered every beat of the story.

When it was finalized, they sent the story to Eastwood and producer Rob Lorenz.

“After we got approval on the story, Paul just left me alone to write the first draft,” Yamashita recounts. “I understood that, to the Japanese, this was very sensitive material, with political and cultural overtones, so I was very conscious of walking the line between the factual events and political sensitivity to the story. But just as ‘Stalingrad’ had been successful in presenting the German soldier’s perspective, I was hoping that ‘Letters’ would effectively depict the sacrifices and struggles of war from a side we’re not used to seeing.”

In researching the film, Yamashita had access to the same documents that Eastwood had read as he explored the material.

“The first document I looked at was a compilation of letters from Gen. Kuribayashi to his family during the time he had been a military envoy in the United States,” says Yamashita. “Most of them were addressed to his son when he was a toddler. As I read them, I was hit with the same impression that Clint must have had when those letters had inspired him to make the movie.

“It was hard to believe that this soft-hearted, loving father was the commanding general of the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima. The letters were filled with doodles and caricatures and humorous sentiment. You could tell that he adored and missed his son.” Letters became a central theme of the film.

“As I got further into the research, some of the narrative just sprang to life, as if the characters were just begging to have their stories told,” Yamashita says. “Besides Gen. Kuribayashi, there was another central character, Baron Nishi, who was born an aristocrat and won an Olympic gold medal in horse jumping during the 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles. Much of his scenario may sound made up, but they were taken directly from relayed accounts and bits of information that his descendants passed on to us.”

Firsthand accounts of the battle of Iwo Jima were sparse, since survivors were few, but in addition to the Kuribayashi letters, Yamashita found several other sources of information, including soldiers’ journals, which added a deeper emotional layer to her collection of facts.

“I also picked up a book on the Kempeitai, the Japanese equivalent of the German SS. I also wanted to reveal a little of the homeland to show how war affects more than just the battlefield.”

Eastwood liked her first draft, Yamashita says, but Haggis wanted more -- more surprises, more drama, more intensity. Ken Watanabe, who had been signed to star, also read the script and sent her notes, which she tried to incorporate.

“Ken got very involved in his role,” says Yamashita. “He paid his respects at the gravesite of his character and came up with a lot of suggestions for the script. There is also an association in Japan that looked over the script, so we thought we had all the bases covered.”

Yamashita’s final English version of the script was submitted to several Japanese translation services, and the Japanese version of the script used in the film was a combination of those multiple translation efforts. “Letters” was shot while “Flags of Our Fathers” was in post-production.”The one regret I have is that my work in ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ will be filtered by subtitles because the film is shot in Japanese,” says Yamashita. “ ‘Letters’ is an innovative project, part of a concept that has never been done before, and I hope I’ve been able to help create a memorial to the characters in a story that otherwise wouldn’t have been told.”