Tom on Japan

Letters from Iwo Jima in History – A Film Review

Once when I was doing some research on Japanese war medals I came across this unexpected fact: in 2009 Clint Eastwood was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun (3rd Class), bestowed by Japan’s Emperor Akihito. My immediate reaction was, Huh? What was that all about?

Turns out Eastwood was being honored for his highly regarded film, Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), which he directed – and co-produced with Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz. It seems that way back in 1875 Japan’s Meiji government created the Rising Sun medal to recognize exemplary deeds whether military or civilian.

But the 1945 Iwo Jima battle was a devastating defeat for Japan. So why would a Japanese emperor honor Eastwood for creating a film which proved the point?

Some Background

Iwo Jima is an island in the western Pacific located 760 miles southeast of Tokyo. It’s tiny – measuring only about 8 square miles. Iwo Jima’s distinguishing natural features are its black volcanic sand and Mt. Suribachi, a small mountain which played a pivotal role in the Japanese defense plan. The horrific battle for which the island will forever be known was fought from Feb 19 to Mar 26, 1945. During those 35 days of sheer hell, 6,800 Americans in the attacking force and most of the 21,000 Japanese defenders lost their lives.

America was determined to capture Iwo Jima. Japanese warplanes based there had been attacking American bombers on their round trip to the Japanese home islands, along with their bases in the Marianas. Also important, Iwo Jima would provide an emergency air field for American bombers in distress. This was no incidental matter, as Iwo Jima’s air field saved the lives of 24,000 American airmen according to one estimate.

Letters From Iwo Jima is based on actual letters from Japanese forces on Iwo Jima to their families back home. Flashbacks to revealing incidents in their past play an equally important role. Excerpts from island commander Tadamichi Kuribayashi down to the lowliest soldier are incorporated in the script. These excerpts and flashbacks present the Japanese soldier in a completely different light from the typical Hollywood stereotype.

A great example is Kuribayashi’s letters, which reveal a dedicated husband and father – a gentle human being utterly unlike the ruthless warrior you’d expect to command a desperate battle. In one letter written en route to his new command on Iwo Jima, Kuribayashi apologizes to his wife for not having had time to attend to the kitchen floor, and tells her the problem really should be addressed. This in the face of almost certain death in the impending battle.

Another example, this time by way of a flashback, comes from way down in the ranks. An Iwo Jima soldier by the name of Shimizu recounts an experience involving his superior officer back home. They were patrolling a residential neighborhood together when they encounter a dog belonging to a mother and her two small children. The animal is barking behind a small fence adjacent to the family’s residence. Sensing an opportunity to test Shimizu’s obedience, the officer orders him to shoot the dog on the pretext that barking might disturb army communications in the area.

Shimizu has the dog taken out back. But decency prevails once Shimizu is out of the officer’s sight. He unholsters his gun and shoots into the air, hoping his pistol’s report will fool the officer. The story ends badly for both dog and Shimizu but the takeaway is more Shimizu’s humanity than his superior’s want of it.

If you see this picture you will meet Saigo, another sympathetic, low-ranking soldier on Iwo Jima. Saigo had been a humble baker back home in Japan. In another of the film’s many revealing flashbacks the local draft committee shows up at his door. A draft notice is thrust forward. Saigo is stunned. His pregnant wife Hanako is distraught. A woman on the committee who seems in charge is furious at their reaction. Every family has given a husband or son to the cause. Hanako should welcome the prospect of her husband dying for the emperor. “At least you will have a little one to carry on your name” the woman says angrily, looking down at Hanako’s belly. Later when Hanako is alone with her husband she cannot let go her anguish: “None of the men ever come back” she says with great emotion.

On Iwo Jima, Saigo is a nearly constant presence in the film. But victory isn’t his purpose. Let the Americans have the island, he tells a buddy. Better than breaking your back digging trenches in the sand and digging caves out of volcanic rock. Saigo’s only goal is to come home alive – a solemn promise to his unborn child.

Saigo is one of the key characters in this picture. Another is Saigo’s unit commander, Captain Tanida. Tanida is contemptuous of Saigo, who he sees as unpatriotic and unfit. Saigo's lack of interest in the war is transparent, and he can’t shoot worth a damn. Early on we see Tanida beating Saigo for that unpatriotic comment about letting the Americans have Iwo Jima without a fight. The beating stops only when Kuribayashi happens by and admonishes Tanida for beating soldiers when there are few enough as it is. Much later in the film, when the Japanese force on Iwo Jima is all but annihilated, top commander Kuribayashi has formed a bond with foot soldier Saigo. Several chance encounters explain this otherwise implausible development, which ends up saving Saigo’s life when Kuribayashi keeps him out of the final banzai charge. If it had been up to Tanida, Saigo would have led the charge – with certain death.

These key characters play off each other right to the final scene. By film’s end, each has become an archetype of his respective character. Saigo is the innocent civilian drafted into a war he doesn’t understand or believe in. Tanida is the consummate warrior, and Kuribayashi stands somewhere in the middle – more on them below.

From the Japanese government’s perspective, Clint Eastwood’s medal was well deserved. His film dramatized letters that few would ever know about, and turned them into proof that not every Japanese soldier was a Hollywood-style monster. That, the government concluded, was a solid contribution to Japanese-American relations.

But was that the entire substance of Letters From Iwo Jima? Eastwood’s film did show that there were Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima who did not fit the Hollywood stereotype. But the story is a little more complex than that. There is another flashback involving Kuribayashi, years earlier in California. We see him in full dress uniform as guest of honor at a military dinner party. After friendly conversation and smiles all around, the host’s wife shatters the bonhomie with a tricky question: what would Kuribayashi do if the United States and Japan ever went to war against each other? Would he follow his own convictions – or those of his country? "Are they not the same?" was Kuribayashi’s immediate reply. So, there’s another side to the loving husband and compassionate commander.

Kuribayashi's unexpected answer had been hard wired into Japanese warriors for over 800 years. It came straight from the samurai code of honor known in modern times as “bushido,” or way of the warrior. Loyalty, bravery, self-sacrifice (literally), and obedience to one’s lord and master were its core.

For two millennia leading up to the 1940s, Japan’s ultimate lord and master was the emperor, * a divinity descended from the Sun goddess Amaterasu, according to Japanese belief. Kuribayashi’s reply to his American friends at that dinner party reflected absolute loyalty and obedience to Emperor Hirohito, in whose name Japan fought the Pacific War.

In a different scene Kuribayashi provides another example of bushido. A subordinate officer questions his tunnel-digging strategy in the caves as futile. Kuribayashi is livid. Maybe so. Maybe the entire defense of Iwo Jima is futile. Maybe the entire war is futile. But if the children back home in Japan can live in safety one more day, it’s worth the sacrifice of every soldier on Iwo Jima.

However, it’s clear that if the epic Pacific struggle produced samurai-like warriors Kuribayashi is not the best example. It is Captain Tanida who best fits that role. He is the unforgiving commander who would unsheathe his sword without hesitation and decapitate a soldier under his command for the slightest offense. In their day samurai could do the same, even with civilians. Tanida is most persuasive as samurai when he commits the classic act of ritual suicide known as seppuku after it is apparent Iwo Jima is lost to the Americans. But he kills himself 20th century style – with a gun to the head instead of a blade to the belly.

Kuribayashi and Tanida each fulfill the bushido imperative of self-sacrifice differently. For Tanida, the honorable way out was to die by his own hand. For Kuribayashi it was to die by way of an act which served the emperor in an identifiable way. That was accomplished when he led the final banzai charge, which at least held out the prospect of taking some of the enemy with him.

After Japan’s defeat on Iwo Jima it would have been clear to all but the most fanatical militarists that the war could not be won. It seemed Japan’s only hope of repelling the coming American invasion (before anyone knew of the atomic bomb) was to turn its population into a suicidal kamikaze force. If vast numbers of civilians were willing to die for their emperor, they might inflict unacceptably high casualties on American forces. American public opinion might then compel an end to the Pacific War with Japan retaining its sovereignty. But that was not to be.

In San Francisco on September 8,1951, six years after its formal surrender on the U.S. Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan signed a peace treaty with the United States and most of the Allied powers. There were a few holdouts, the most important of which was the former Soviet Union, now Russia. To this day Japan and Russia have not signed a treaty formally ending their state of belligerency in World War II. **

I doubt Eastwood's Order of the Rising Sun medal came as a complete surprise to him. On balance the film presents the Iwo Jima battle from a Japanese perspective, which would have impressed the Japanese government. Soldiers like Saigo who just want to go home have great appeal in the west, and Saigo's role certainly would have been a plus for Japanese-American relations. But if you’re a Japanese who respects traditional warrior ideals like loyalty and self-sacrifice, you might see the Japanese “villains” on Iwo Jima like Captain Tanida as the real heroes.

Those opposing perspectives are one of the things which makes this picture so interesting. The soldiers who committed seppuku on Iwo Jima did so because in their view it honorably upheld their age-old warrior heritage. In that sense the film is as much about an asymmetrical clash of cultures – ancient east vs. modern west – as it is about anything else.

* The list of Japanese emperors includes “legendary” emperors, beginning with Emperor Jimmu in 660 B.C.E. The current emperor (as of 2017) is Akihito, who ascended to the Chrysanthemum throne in 1989 on the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito. After Japan’s defeat in 1945 Hirohito renounced the emperor’s divine status forever. There were periods of Japanese history when emperors were reduced to a figurehead role, with real power held by a shogun (“generalissimo”). But by the 1940s the shogun was a distant memory, the last one having relinquished power in 1867.

** Stalin declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945, two days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and one week before Japan’s surrender. The obstacle to a formal peace treaty between the two nations is disputed territory – control over four islands each claim as its own.

© 2017 Tom Silver


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