Letters From Iwo Jima: What is War?

The official movie poster of the movie "Letters From Iwo Jima"
The official movie poster of the movie “Letters From Iwo Jima”

     So, the first movie review (excited!). Well, not really the first, since I used to review movies in a geek-ly kind of fashion in front of my buddies most of the times, so yeah.

     The honor of being the first movie to be reviewed by a common folk goes to…(drumroll…) Letters From Iwo Jima!

     Now wait a minute, you might say. The movie’s boring as much as boring could be, some might say. Even my own old man fell to a deep sleep in the early minutes while watching it with me. Probably, yes, it’s VERY boring; but to me, the movie’s a gem. It changed my naive perspective of, “wow, war is awesome!” Into something like, “so many dead people. So many futile deaths.” Which actually is the definition of war, in a nutshell. Told from the losing side of the Japanese at their brave-beyond-mention final stand at Iwo Jima, this story really is worth your time to watch (I know, I know, three hours).


As the director of this movie, Clint Eastwood changed the perspectives of common people towards the battle of Iwo Jima drastically; even myself, as I always thought that in that particular war, the Japanese are so savage and brutal. Letters From Iwo Jima is a (literally) awesome history-based war movie which is self-explanatory from its name. It is based on the infamous bloody pacific war located in the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, where 20,000 souls were lost on the defending side (the Japanese) and less than 1,000 were captured. The movie is consisted of Japanese dialogues nearly all the time, so we have that feel of a different war atmosphere, the one where the soldiers were all Japanese and has their body and soul tested beyond measure through the time of distress, not that “KILL THE AMERICANS! KILL, KILL, KILL!” kind of atmosphere of war. The performers were excellent as they were very natural in their acting and the characterization is something to admire, since telling the difference between each same-uniformed soldier can be hard to do without a good one. The movie also has an expert tension build-up through the switching of the scenes, several emphasized dialogues, and a huge portion of credit for the great natural performance (the expressions on their faces were very touching). The mental of the soldiers and the brilliant plans of the acting general were the main highlights of the movie, and almost all of the scenes in the movie were based upon it. The camera shooting was also something to be amazed at. How they managed to shoot the right landscape for the right time to have the maximum feel and effect is just spectacular. The muted color on the movie gave a touch of reality and tragedy; the two important element of the movie.


What is Iwo Jima, you ask? Iwo Jima is an island southeast of the Japanese mainland.

The location of the infamous island of Iwo Jima. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The location of the infamous island of Iwo Jima. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The U.S. army were trying to occupy Iwo Jima in order to guarantee the success of launching an attack at the Japanese mainland. Think of it as a military outpost of strategic advantages. If the island is captured, then the thought of the Japanese force surviving the barrage of attacks from the U.S. army is just impossible, since the U.S. had the liberty to replenish supplies anytime and had a safe place to retreat, if needed. The U.S. will also have a base near enough to Japan to launch their strategic bombers on them. The best part is: the Japanese force  just can’t do anything about it, since they were outgunned, outnumbered; and may I say, too orthodox to take desperate measures. In WWII, Japan was an empire that values traditional values very, very high. They uphold honor more than anything. They believed that dying in a Banzai charge (hint: a suicide attack) is far more honorable than retreating, which is just wrong, since retreating and recollecting forces has more chance of victory than doing a suicide attack, where death is 99,99% certain. Sure, it may work in comic books, movies, and books, where the heroes were trapped in a desperate situation and they heroically charged. But suicide in real world is real, which is saying a lot. In short, the Japanese force values honor more than the slightest chance of victory; and that, my good common folks, is their key to defeat. Before continuing, I think I skipped an explanation about “honor” here. Samurais. Familiar to your ears? Sure! Samurai Jack, Power Rangers Samurai, The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise, etc, etc. These were fictional examples based on the Samurais (I’m not really sure Samurais come in different colors like in the Power Rangers series. Especially yellow). Historically, they were loyal royal (I know, it rhymes) warriors of the Japanese Empire, serving under lords who ultimately served under the Shogun; the second-highest rank in the Japanese Empire. The highest is the Emperor himself, of course, but the Shogun is the one  that took care of everything; so that, say, the Emperor could kick back and relax. Back to Samurais. These remarkable warriors have their own sets of rules, mainly based on the Bushido: the way of the warrior, literally. It’s this guideline the Samurais were expected to follow in their life, similar to the European chivalry code, actually. An important part of this set of rule concerned the importance of honor.

“When one lost their honour or the situation made them lose it, the only way to save their dignity was by death. Seppuku (vulgarly called “harakiri“, or “belly-cutting”) was the most honourable death in that situation. The only way for a Samurai to die more honourably was to be killed in a battle by a sword.” Wikipedia

Since the U.S. troops didn’t use swords of any kind ( I don’t think combat knife counts), the Iwo Jima force was left with no choice in order to save their honor. They were to commit Seppuku, or they were to do the Banzai charge (suicide charge, in an easier term). Retreat, of course, will result in shame to them. Don’t ask me why retreat is a shame, I’m born just before the year 2000.

Main Characters and Their Stories

I think there are only two main characters, since the movie was mostly based on their viewpoint. Let’s start with a former baker who has no experience with front-line wars and guns and whatsoever, yet a smart-enough man who values life more then honor. His name is Saigo. He’s a scrawny, naive, newlywed man who had a wife and a newborn baby girl at his home.

Saigo, the smart man who values life more than honor. Courtesy of Google Images.
Saigo, the smart man who values life more than honor. Courtesy of Google Images.

     To me, Saigo is one of the two guys in the movie that makes sense. When a soldier openly disagreed with a higher officer (at the risk of his death) in the matter of both Banzai and Seppuku, you’ll know he’s the only one around with a healthy brain.

     In many of the movie scenes, Saigo was portrayed as a man with the realistic mental of a war soldier with no experience. Some may call this a cowardice, but frankly I think they will change their mind if they were put in the same distressing situation. Not only Saigo, several of his friends were portrayed in this way, too. Throughout the film, waning confidence is always depicted on these soldiers ‘from Mars’ (the term ‘these man from Mars’ is actually real, since the Japanese survivors of the brutal war looked inhumane, only weighing around 30 kilos). As I observed in many war movies, the soldiers were more frequently portrayed from their ‘heroic’ sides, not their mental vulnerability. But in this particular war movie, where we see war from the losing side’s point-of-view, the word ‘war’ is clearly defined, because that is war; full of losses, deaths, and unsure victory. How will you feel when you are in a situation where death is certain, suffering is even more certain, and yet your goal is beyond your reach? To put in in a commoner’s term, how will you feel when your chemistry teacher sets up a pop quiz in just five minutes, you have to memorize fifty pages of atomic crap in that long minutes, and yet you knew you would fail?

     Other than Saigo, there is General Kuribayashi. He is a Japanese general who is apparently smart enough to hold Iwo Jima for approximately 40 days rather than a quick, brutal defeat from a futile fight at the beach. You see, Iwo Jima is an island, and if a war were to commence in an island, basically you need to set up a beach defence; trenches, mounted machine guns, artilleries, all at the beach to hold the attackers at bay. But Kuribayashi did not want to do that. He knows that the U.S. had more better armaments than him and that his troops will probably be shot at from the range, and that his troops will be sitting ducks to air raids, especially they had no aerial support whatsoever. When we are talking about american air raids; folks, we are not messing around, especially when there are no air supports to hold them off.

Yes folks, it's Ken Watanabe from "The Last Samurai" as General Kuribayashi.
Yes folks, it’s Ken Watanabe from “The Last Samurai” as General Kuribayashi.

Although his  assisting officers argued with him concerning the beach defense, Kuribayashi continued to proceed with his unusual plans. His assisting officers were definitely surprised when he said the word “tunnels” , and yet these tunnels were a wondering marvel several decades later to Japanese archaeologists, and proved to be a precious underground shelter from the U.S. army’s artillery bombardment. Before the war, Kuribayashi actually had a visit to the U.S., where he was assigned to learn the Americans’ ways (maybe in an attempt to exploit them in later days of conflicts). He was amazed at the technological advances the Americans has made, and was struck by wonder on how friendly they were. In his parting day with his community, they prepared some sort of feast to Kuribayashi as a token of gratefulness, along with a gift (a Colt handgun, I think). Kuribayashi was clearly moved by this gesture. As I was saying, Saigo was one of the two people who clearly values life more than honor, and the other people who did that is this good-guy general. Kuribayashi did not foolishly order Banzai charges around like a boss; no, he believed in preserving the lives of men to achieve victory, and that is war is all about: entirely about victory, not entirely about honor.

“I don’t know who he is, but the Japanese General running this show is one smart bastard.”  Marine Corps General Holland Smith

Kuribayashi had a wife, a son, and a daughter. In the movie, flashbacks of his experience in the United States frequently began by mentally addressing his son, Taro. This shows that this guy is apparently a family guy, too.


There are several lessons that I can pick from this gem of a movie. Let’s start with the obvious: men’s life are far more valuable than anything else, including honor. It made me realize that, honor is not found in deaths, but on the other hand, honor is found in the deeds of a man’s life. The longer you live, more chances of doing good deeds you will get, and I think that’s all honor is about. Good deeds. There is also another precious lesson I get from a scene in the movie, when Baron Nishi, a Japanese Olympic athlete (and gold-medal winner in horseback riding) took in a wounded U.S. soldier and picked up a little chat. It was touching, and it hits me: I am seeing future. In the future, when globalization became a major problem yet a problem solver, people will understand each other better and conflicts will lessen. The discharged Kempeitai officer in the movie said it all: “I was taught that the Americans were savages”. With toleration, there will be less enemies and more friends; you tell me folks, do you prefer enemies or friends? As Jesus (I am not a Christian nor Satanist, if you’re wondering) said it in a very fine way: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,”. Tolerance is not an easy thing to do, but it bear great fruits that can help you in the future.

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” Jesus, KJV Translation

Another highlight in this movie is perhaps teamwork. Kuribayashi is not trusted by his assisting officials, and through the movie continued to be referred as ‘behind-the-desk’ general or ‘an American sympathizer’. Because of this, many of his key assisting officers turned their backs on him and did what they think is right: to die with honor in a Banzai charge rather than retreating (as told by Kuribayashi) with shame. Kuribayashi is actually trying to save their lives, but due to the lacking trust his assisting officers had, his plan to hold Iwo Jima failed (in a courageous fashion). Teamwork is always the key to success in an organization. The final lesson I picked is perhaps the most important one, since it is the most agreeable and universal one. As I said earlier, the movie opened my eyes to the brutality of near-real-life war, emphasis on the word ‘near’. I played a lot of war games, such as Call  of Duty, Medal of Honor, Stronghold, Command and Conquer, etc. All in all they were fun. Heck, I even enjoy burning my own men with flamethrowers or trapping my own swordsmen with hundreds of lions. Death, in games and entertainment, is equal to fun; which is very ironic, since death must belong with tragedy and distress. This movie is actually the first movie that depicts the tragedy of war, and what this war actually stands for: empty hopes of world domination and empty glories, honors, and purposes. In one way, it is shown to me that way. But being a pretty upbeat guy, I also noticed the different purposes of these futile deaths. Sure, some dedicated their life to the Japanese Empire, or honor, or even to ego. But if there’s anything worth quoting from the movie, it’s Kuribayashi’s sole purpose in going down fighting to death: “The tunnel-digging may be futile. The stand on Iwo Jima may be futile. Maybe the whole war is futile. Would you give up then? We will defend this island until we are dead! Until the very last soldier is dead! If our children can live safely for one more day, it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island!” Which, saying in an easier term, he fought to preserve lives, not honor, not the Empire itself, not ego, but lives of men; the single thing that is valued beyond golds, silvers, diamonds. Again, in a cruel irony, men themselves saw this backwards; that golds, silvers, and diamonds are more valuable than their own lives. War, is always futile.

“The tunnel-digging may be futile. The stand on Iwo Jima may be futile. Maybe the whole war is futile. Would you give up then? We will defend this island until we are dead! Until the very last soldier is dead! If our children can live safely for one more day, it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island!” General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

To close this review, I want to quote a particular famous last words. But before that, I’d like to finish off this movie-of-the-week review by saying a huge huge thanks to you readers. I’d also like to remind you guys that this work is free to read, copy, or used IF, that’s the big if, you kindly care to give me some credit. Comments are very welcome, as long as it’s relevant with the topic.  Once again, thanks a LOT!

 “All officers and men of Chichi Jima – goodbye from Iwo.” General Tadamichi Kuribayachi

Rating:  Personally I’ll give 4/5, but I felt a need to give extra credit for the war heroes; so instead, I gave a 4.5/5.


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