Sunday, February 04, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima: Culture Clashing at the Movies

What a monumental achievement this movie is. Its Academy Awards nominations are richly deserved. My knowledge of Japanese culture and WWII history are wanting in this instance and I need to see "Flags Of Our Fathers" to get a view of the U.S. side, but I was blown away by this movie. "Letters From Iwo Jima" takes you inside the minds of the Japanese soldiers. You empathize, and even root for them in the face of the impossible odds -- because they cannot win.

That a first time screenwriter, a Japanse American, got such an opportunity is also phenomenal. She worked with Paul Haggis, Academy Award winner, Clint Eastwood Academy Award winner, and now she may win herself. Talk about the chance of a lifetime! But the achievement is monumental and one wonders how it could have been written without the collaboration of someone with an inside understanding of that culture. It was based on a book, in part, but nonetheless, the Japanese cultural themes are so strong throughout.

The film is the the Japanese side of the Battle of Iwo Jima told from the points of view of the commanding general and those who serve under him. These are ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. Saigo is a baker who just wants to get back to his wife and the daughter he has yet to meet. Throughout the whole film, he just wishes he was somewhere else. None of the seemingly blind patriotism of some of the others. He just wants to go home and is doing what he must to survive.

The Japanese sense of honor is certainly a key cultural theme, and it is interesting how it takes shape here. At one point, when things are clearly taking a turn for the worst, many officers and soldiers want to commit suicide to preserve their honor, while the commanding General has ordered them not to. Others want to go on. And there is an intra-cultural struggle here against the traditional sense of honor and a new understanding which has emerged in these circumstances.

Another cultural theme is patriotism. Certainly we Americans know much about this, but I think the soldiers in this film evidence a level of it which often goes beyond what most American realize. To fight and die for their country is the highest honor to them, and their will to live, their instinct to survive, is constantly tested by this resolve. What is true patriotism? Is it the man who realizes they are defeated and takes mines out to destroy one last tank suicidally? Is it the soldiers who rather than face defeat, kill themselves? Is it the soldiers who continue fighting on? Is it those who die in the course of duty? Whose is the greater patriotism. The film provides no clear answers but the questions are strong ones that leave you thinking and debating long after the film is done.

Other themes are what most jar us. If we go thinking the Japanese are not like us in any way (which I did not), we might be shocked to hear them thinking of their wives and kids, writing and receiving letters from home, and interacting with one another much as we do. One of the most powerful scenes is when the soldiers listen as their leader translates a letter from the mother of an American soldier they had captured. And they comment that the letters sound just like those of their own mothers. Maybe the Americans and Japanese are not so different, the characters realize. We realize it. And that is the heart of the brilliance at work here.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" puts us in the heads of those whom on the surface might seem nothing like us and allows us to see the world from their point of view. In the process of comparing both films, I imagine, one can see the similarities more than the differences and gain new respect for the long villianized Japanese enemy who so valliantly fought against our grandfathers and great grandfathers all those decades ago. I have yet to see "Flags Of Our Fathers" but it was written and made by the same filmmaking team as a companion from the American point of view, and I have heard it is powerful. I cannot wait to see it. You should not wait to see "Letters From Iwo Jima" either. It leaves you changed for the better.

For what it's worth...

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