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Letters from Iwo Jima

January 24, 2007

I hardly go out to see movies nowadays, but one movie that had been on my radar screen after A.O. Scott of the New York times rated it as the best film of 2006, was the Clint Eastwood directed Letters from Iwo Jima. The movie, though about war, is not a war epic. It is based on events in February-March of 1945 with WWII raging in the Pacific and really no side able to claim supreme advantage. The Imperial Japanese army and the United States military were engaged in several simultaneous and bloody battles over control of strategic territory in the vast Pacific ocean. The invasion of the tiny Japanese island of Iwo Jima, only 8 square kilometres in area and 1200 km south of Tokyo, by the Americans whose aim was to use its airfields to launch non-stop air raids on the Japanese mainland was a pivotal turning point in the war that lead to the eventual invasion of Okinawa and ultimately the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year. The context of this particular battle is significant – the Japanese had recently had their entire Naval fleet destroyed and thus had no real reinforcements to send to the island’s defense portending its doom from the outset, however this information was witheld by the Japanese war planners from their generals in an effort to not weaken their resolve. Herein lies one of the central themes explored in this movie: in the face of certain defeat, how are soldiers supposed to act? The movie is told from the perspective of the Japanese whose culture is well known to revere honor in death. Yet the key question is honor for whom, one’s country or one’s self? This idea is explored in different ways through several characters including a few soldiers and General Kuribayashi who was commisioned to lead the defense. All the men describe their ordeals in letters written to family members that serve to also relive their past. The theme is beautifully encapsulated in a letter an Americon mother from Oklahoma has sent to her captured son on the battlefield that says “do what is right, because it is right.” The humanizing of the soldier’s lives through vis-a-vis their letters only adds to the audience’s experience of the traumatic war, but gives us necessary insight into the mindset that pervaded a wartime society, a society in which conscription into the army was an honorable and almost desirable act that forced these young men to display incredible selflessness. I do not want to give away too much of the plot so I won’t say more, but I will say that the sheer realism of the re-enactment of this battle is gripping.

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