Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)




Director:  Clint Eastwood.

Starring:  Ken Watanabe (General Tadamichi Kuribayashi), Kazunari Ninomiya (Saigo), Tsuyoshi Ihara (Baron Nishi), Ryo Kase (Shimizu), Shido Nakamura (Lieutenant Ito), Hiroshi Watanabe (Lieutenant Fujita), Takumi Bando (Captain Tanida), Yuki Matsuzaki (Nozaki), Takashi Yamaguchi (Kashiwara), Eijiro Ozaki (Lieutenant Okubo), Nae (Hanako Saigo), Nobumasa Sakagami (Admiral Ohsugi), Akiko Shima (Lead Woman), Luke Eberl (Sam), Sonny Saito (Medic Endo).

the battle for Iwo Jima presented from the Japanese perspective


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

Iwo Jima. 2005.  Scenes of the ruins from the battle for Iwo Jima.  There are lots of remnants of tanks, artillery and caves.  A group of investigators discover a bag buried in the ground in the cave that served as headquarters for commander General Kuribayashi. This causes a great deal of excitement among the investigators as they proceed to dig around the bag. 

Flashback.  Iwo Jima. 1944.  A Japanese soldier named Saigo thinks to himself that he has to dig all day and wonders:  "Am I digging my own grave?"  A plane flies over the island.  The soldier complains that there is no water on the island and way too many bugs.  He says:  "We should give the island to the Americans"  His companion says that the island is sacred to the Japanese homeland, but Saigo says he doesn't see anything sacred about this particular island. 

The plane lands and General Kuribayashi, the new commander, steps out.  He is followed by his aid, Lt. Fujita.  The general is greeted by Admiral Ohsugi.  They go on a small tour of the island.  Captain Tanida, who overheard the conversation between Saigo and his buddy, starts to beat the two men with a cane.  General Kuribayashi stops the captain.  He tells the officer to deny the men lunch rations instead of beating them. 

Kuribayashi is shocked to learn that the battle plan does not coordinate the actions of the various forces on the island.  The problem with the army section, for instance, is that it is under the separate control of Colonel Adachi.  Kuribayashi tells his fellow officers that they should make the fortifications on Mt. Suribachi their primary goal.  He also tells them to move the artillery back from the beach.  Kuribayashi finds out that many of the tanks are out of commission and waiting for new parts.  He also gives an order to evacuate the civilians on the island. 

Saigo remarks to his buddy that there is a celebrity on the island.  Baron Nishi is a champion horse jumper who won Olympic gold.   Lt. Col. Nishi brings some Johnny Walker whiskey in to General Kuribayashi.  Nishi tells the general that the combined fleet has been destroyed in the battle at the Marianas.  The two officers have dinner together.  The general learns later that the Japanese fighter planes have been sent back to Japan to protect the mainland. 

A soldier named Kashiwara is sick from dysentery because of the bad water on the island.  A new soldier named Shimizu arrives.  Saigo and his buddy are very suspicious of the man.  They believe he is a spy because they peg him to be a graduate of the Kempeitai military academy.  Saigo complains about having to eat weed soup again for dinner.  He has a flashback of the time when he was a simple baker.  He was a happy man until he received the news that he is going to go to war.  His wife objects, but she is called unpatriotic because nearly all the wives have had to send their husbands to war.  Saigo's wife is pregnant and is very worried about her future:  "What will I do when you die? . . . The men (who go to war) never come home."

General Kuribayashi tells Admiral Ohsugi that he is being sent back to the Japanese mainland.  He will be replaced by Ichimaura.  Ohsugi protests but Kuribayashi demands that he go back to headquarters and ask them for support. 

A Japanese officer explains that their soldiers have an advantage over the American soldiers.  The American soldiers are not as motivated as the Japanese soldiers are and therefore are not as good.  He adds that the American medic should be a primary target to kill. 

Lt. Col. Nishi warns General Kuribayashi to keep an eye on the rebellious General Hayashi as a potential spoiler.  Admiral Ichimaura reports for duty to the general. 

The island are struck by American planes which strafe and bomb the place.  Baron Nishi's champion horse is killed.  The Japanese commander is informed that the fleet of American ships heading to Iwo Jima has left Saipan.  Kuribayashi gives the order:  "Ready the troops."  The general gives a pep rally speech to motivate the troops and at the end they give the "Bansai!" shout.  Saigo is given the dirty job of emptying the latrine pot in the cave.  As he proceeds along the side of Mt. Suribachi he looks up and sees the incredible number of American ships just off Iwo Jima.   He is astounded at the sight and he knows he and his fellows are in for big trouble.

The Americans start landing on the beach.  Kuribayashi tells his men to wait until the beach is full of marines to open fire.  When the beach is covered with marines, the Japanese open up on them and start inflicting the high casualties for which Iwo Jima became famous.  Adachi says that he needs reinforcements but Kuribayashi has none for him.  It starts to dawn on headquarters that they are losing Suribachi.  Adachi calls Kuribayashi and tells him that he wants to die with his men on Suribachi.  Captain Tanida sends Saigo to Kuribayashi to get more machine guns. 

Increasingly on Suribachi the officers and others consider suicide to be the only response to the terrible situation.  Any attempt at escape is considered the coward's way.  The officers and men start committing suicide by blowing themselves up with hand grenades.  Saigo returns but soon wants to flee.  He does not want to die.  He is stopped by Shimizu who says that he is a coward.  Saigo convinces Shimizu that it is better to escape so that they can fight on against the Americans.  They leave but meet up with survivors from other suicide groups.  The decision is made to make a run for Motoyama. 

Lt. Ito confronts Saigo and Shimizu saying that they are both a disgrace and calling them cowards.  He is just about to start loping off their heads when he is stopped by General Kuribayashi.  Lt. Ito objects to the general that the two men ran from Suribachi, but the general insists.  When Kuribayashi leaves Lt. Ito says that the survivors from Mt. Suribachi will now join the attack to be led by General Hayashi.  The aim is to take back Mt. Suribachi.  This is directly in violation of Kuribayashi's order for the men to escape and regroup in the north. The attack fails miserably.  When Kuribayashi learns of the attack he is furious.  He also learns that General Hayashi had countermanded his order to escape and regroup in the north. 

The survivors in the skirmish for Mt. Suribachi are now placed under the command of Lt. Col. Nishi.  But the ever stubborn Lt. Ito decides to go ahead by himself.  He places two land mines around his neck and sets out for the American lines.  He wants to find an American tank under which he can throw himself in order to blow it up.  Not finding any tanks, he places himself among the Japanese dead to wait for a tank.  (He does not have much luck and eventually takes the mines off and starts walking to places unknown.)

Lt. Col. Nishi has his men bring in a wounded American marine.  He wants to talk to the man.  The troops want to kill the American, but Nishi insists that they patch him up.  Nishi, who had been in the United States and could speak English, talks with the young marine.  He starts to get the marine to like him when he tells him how he won the gold in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.   The American's name is Sam.  Sam, however, dies before Nishi can get any useful information from him. 

Saigo wants to surrender.  He wants to leave with Shimizu but doesn't know if he can trust the man.  Shimizu gets Saigo to relax around him by telling him his story.  He was discharged from Kepitai.  He was ordered by his superior to kill a family's dog because the dog kept barking at the two soldiers.  But Shimizu only pretends to kill the dog by going around back and firing a shot into the air.  He tells his superior that he has killed the dog, but as they walk away from the house, his superior hears the dog bark again.  The superior goes into the family house and kills the dog.  He gives Shimizu a good beating and then reports him.  Shimizu's punishment was to be sent to Iwo Jima. 

The Americans go on the attack.  Lt. Col. Nishi rushes to the front of the cave to fire some shots at the Americans, but he is almost immediately hit by shrapnel from an explosion.  The shrapnel blinds him so badly that he has to tell Okubo that he is now in charge of the men.  The men leave Nishi behind in the cave to proceed north.  As they walk away, the men hear a shot.  Nishi has just committed suicide with his rifle. 

Saigo and Shimizu are still trying to escape.  Shimizu goes first.  He successfully surrenders to a group of marines and finds that another Japanese soldier is already being held by the marines.  Two marines are left behind to guard the two Japanese soldiers.  The marines decide to kill the two Japanese because they pose a potential threat to the two marines and they do so.  Later the unit of survivors from Mt. Suribachi come across their two dead comrades.  Okubo tells his men that this should be a lesson for anyone considering surrendering to the Americans.  Saigo is especially upset as he puts a covering over the face of Shimizu.

Kuribayashi now learns that there is no more water.  In fact, the men have gone for five days without food or water.  Saigo is send to dig up earth worms.  In addition, there is no more ammunition.  As a kind of final stand, Kuribayashi decides to make a general attack.  He tells Saigo to stay back and burn the documents and the general's military chest.  (Saigo buries the bag in the cave.) 

In the attack Kuribayashi steps on a mine and is put out of action.  Lt. Fujita drags the general to a safe area.  Kuribayashi asks Lt. Fujita to lop off his head, but an American marine shoots and kills the lieutenant as he is about to start the down stroke of the sword.  Saigo shows up and tries to help the general.  But Kuribayashi takes out his 1911 Colt revolver given to him in the United States and shoots himself in the chest.  Saigo is taken prisoner by the marines and the last glimpse of him is on a stretcher in a long line of wounded men waiting to be picked up by the ambulances. 

Back to the present.  The investigators uncover a bag.  They empty it and letters from Iwo Jima fall out onto the ground. 

Good, solid movie.  It was interesting to watch the doomed efforts of the Japanese on Iwo Jima.  Any one on Iwo Jima, seeing the size of the American fleet, would have known that they were doomed.  It's remarkable that there weren't more incidents of men cracking up under the fear and pressure.  But the Japanese were indoctrinated into a strange bushido code of the old Samurai and their options were severely limited.  I have written in these reviews of movies dealing with Japan in World War II  about how dysfunctional and, frankly, horrible Japanese society was under the Samurai way of thinking.  This is amply demonstrated in the outcome of the battle at Iwo Jima.  As soon as things looked bleak, the vast majority of the Japanese soldiers killed themselves.  They regarded escape as the coward's way out of the situation.  It was seen as a sign of weakness to surrender.  The end result is that almost all the Japanese on Iwo Jima in 1944 died.  The Japanese could have inflicted even more casualties on the Americans if they hadn't refused to retreat and regroup, but no, this way was not possible given the preferred option of the soldiers killing themselves.  Most armies throughout history give up rather than commit mass suicide.  But not the Japanese.  Today we would consider them to be a bunch of fascist fanatics ready and willing to give or throw away their lives for their country.  Thank goodness there was only one fascist Japan and one fascist Germany.  At the end of World War II the Japanese realized just how terrible was the war-like culture and way of life of Japan and in their new constitution they rejected this approach to life and society. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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