Sunday, February 11, 2007

Best Picture Nominees Part II: Letters from Iwo Jima

[rate 5]

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What a well-crafted film. Films like this are the reason I go to the movies, and the reason I want to make movies.

In the tradition of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, Letters from Iwo Jima brings an introspective, human side to WW2. But this time we see war from the Japanese perspective. The film focuses on how the Japanese prepared for the American attack on the small island of Iwo Jima, ill equipped and undermanned. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a western-educated, academic takes command and finds he has his work cut out for him. While he prefers to use military tactics and careful planning to lead his men, many of his officers intend to use brute force and loyalty to the empire to keep men in line--and oh how these methods are incompatible.

Upon his arrival, he prevents two men from being beaten to death for disloyalty. One of them is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a drafted baker who is perhaps the worst soldier in the entire pacific theater. His crime: suggesting to his friend that the Japanese should just give this worthless hunk of rock to the Americans. Such undisciplined behavior was not tolerated in the Japanese army, but the new General knows they need every man for this battle, and wanted Saigo and his friend spared.

The film portrays the men on both sides as shades of gray, not black and white caricatures. We see die hard Japanese soldiers torture Americans, kill themselves rather than be captured, and shoot underlings for showing cowardice, but we also see an officer speak kindly to an American POW, soldiers care for a captured American, and honest discipline for irrational behavior. And we see the same benevolence and cruelty in American soldiers. Were we really so different? The movie says we weren't. I doubt, however, that a German perspective will be produced by Hollywood any time soon.