July 18, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

With the The Last Samurai (2003), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Hollywood has gone on something of an Orientalist tear over the last half-decade. Oddly enough, all three have featured Ken Watanabe in a starring role, quite aptly portraying the comforting stereotypes (comforting to the Occidental mind) of the aesthetically superior Oriental, even when what he is doing is morally reprehensible.

This coincidence as well illustrates the parallels that can be drawn between the noble stupidity of Saigo Takamori's suicidal civil war (portrayed by Watanabe in The Last Samurai) and the noble stupidity of Tadamichi Kuribayashi's suicidal defense of Iwo Jima seventy years later (portrayed by Watanabe in Letters from Iwo Jima).

Kuribayashi's death was one of the final mile markers along an ideological line of succession that ended with Japan's surrender and 2.6 million dead.

I call it "Orientalism," but what is portrayed especially in these latter two movies puts a self-loathing spin on Edward Said's original term. In Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood, like Edward Zwick, succumbs to a rosy, well-intentioned Orientalism that attributes to his protagonist the best of intentions and leaves unexamined the motivations and belief systems that placed such a seemingly reasonable man in such a morally untenable position.

The west, to be sure, has a long history of finding artistic value in pointless sacrifice, most notably in Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade." However, the modern artist--if he wished to be accepted by the greater artistic establishment--could not do so without casting a cynical eye on the total meaninglessness of the exercise.

(To clarify the difference, the sacrifice of the three-hundred Spartans at Thermopylae was not pointless. It was instrumental in giving the Athenians enough time to stop the Persian advance.)

Witness any contemporary rendering of General Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn. In The Black Adder and Gallipoli, the officers sending the soldiers "over the top" are depicted as imbeciles at best, murderers at worst. Tennyson called the British cavalry at Balaclava the "noble six-hundred" and asks us to "Honour the charge they made!" Well, no, it wasn't "noble"; it was dumb as war gets.

As dumb as what war historians now call the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," a series of air engagements during the Battle of the Philippine Sea (alluded to in the film). American Hellcat pilots downed 400 Japanese aircraft, losing only 20 of their own in the process. The battle destroyed Japan's naval air fleet and left Iwo Jima defenseless. The Japanese high command didn't trumpet this "noble sacrifice"; they pretended it didn't happen.

One-sided competitions surely don't make for good drama. As the British say, it isn't "sporting." So while the Battle of the Philippine Sea was a far more strategically important engagement to both sides, the attention falls instead on Iwo Jima, where 20,703 Japanese died after killing 8,226 Marines. Morally repugnant though it may be, that it was a more "even" fight makes it more interesting.

The military value of Iwo Jima to the American forces was probably not worth the price it extracted in blood (though this would have been difficult to anticipate beforehand, unfortunately true of many of the targets selected during Nimitz's "island hopping" campaign). In the final analysis, Iwo Jima was valuable to the Japanese only because the Americans valued it. It was a battle for an existential cause.

Tadamichi Kuribayashi was asked to sacrifice the lives of 21,000 men in a massive "suicide-by-cop" in order to make a philosophical statement. A goal with which he enthusiastically complied. The comparison is often drawn in these instances to the (real) legend of the Forty-Seven Samurai. The difference is, theirs was not a wanton act of frustration or desperation. It was a carefully planned and executed act of revenge. They succeeded completely.

The only discernable goal that can be taken from the defense of Iwo Jima--also articulated during the Battle of Okinawa--was to make the Americans pay such a high price that they would think twice about invading Japan proper. The saddest irony of the Pacific War was how convincingly this argument was made: the horrendous body counts from Iwo Jima and Okinawa left Truman eager to utilize any tool at his disposal that would obviate the need for invasion.

But Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is not a movie about the wider war. In fact, the ill-informed movie-goer could be excused for not being at all sure what war it is about. The title of the movie promises a kind of memoir, a first-person account probing the thoughts and sentiments of the soldiers fighting and dying there. What we are given instead barely hints at the magnitude of human life Kuribayashi wasted there.

The character of Saigo (unintentional irony?) adopted as the primary point of view throughout the movie represents nothing if not the 21st century outlook of its American director.

The film could have worked as an abstracted, three-act, three set play in which the "enemy" remains always off-screen, leaving the principles to face their fate on their own terms. Yet Eastwood continually errs by pushing fictional and theatrical "realities" into the picture. His cast is so small, the scope of his vision so limited, that when the Americans do arrive, it looks as if the entire U.S. Army decided to invade a Boy Scout camp.

But Kuribayashi was not a scoutmaster. He was a general commanding 21,000 well-armed, fanatical, and dug-in soldiers. Eastwood's account is useless in explaining why he did what he did to them. There is no moment of existential clarity or reflection, as when Alec Guinness asks at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai: "What have I done?" Or as General Pickett was reported to have said of Robert E. Lee: "That old man had my division slaughtered at Gettysburg."

These omissions have been made all the more relevant by the Okinawan legislature's recent objections to government-dictated textbook revisions obscuring the fact that many--if not most--mass civilian suicides carried out at the end of the Battle of Okinawa were less than voluntary in nature. The motivation of the soldiers and their commanders in this light becomes critical.

The answer, strangely enough, can be found in Watanabe's first major Hollywood role. The shame of The Last Samurai, Edward Zwick's fantasy account of the Satsuma Rebellion, is that the real Saigo Takamori was such a towering figure of the Meiji Restoration, instrumental in unifying the Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa domains and overthrowing the Shogunate. Unfortunately, like Thomas Paine, once the revolution was over, he grew bored with the tedium of politics.

The conflict Zwick portrays in such romantic terms was in fact a counter-revolution fought in the name of military expansionism and the feudal privileges of the samurai. The problem with the Satsuma Rebellion--and Zwick gets this right despite himself--was that although Saigo Takamori was soundly defeated on the battlefield, the bushido-fueled nationalistic ideology he came to represent was not.

Those impulses slowly but surely infected the body politic. A quarter-century later, a modernized Japan military struck out just as Saigo Takamori had originally urged them to. Buoyed by victory in the Russo-Japanese war, the ideology festered into a imperial manifest destiny that expressed itself through a series of failed putsches and eventually pushed the Japan into an unwinnable war in China that cost twenty million lives.

Pearl Harbor was the inevitable consequence.

To be sure, it is not impossible to see the East through Western eyes. Once upon a time, Eastwood and Sergio Leone perfectly captured the essence of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. But Mifune's character in Yojimbo is the classic representation of the cynical anti-hero. Anti-heroes aren't the problem. Heroes are. Moral superiority is.

Letters from Iwo Jima so thoroughly toes the lines of moral relativism that there must be a set of Screenwriters Guild rules demanding that all Hollywood war movies sign off on the same checklist: Their cause worthy as our cause? Check. Our soldiers more depraved than their soldiers? Check. Audience left with the impression that the world would be a better place if the United States never lifted a finger against anybody for any reason? Check.

(In the future directors of war movies should dispense with these predictable set pieces and just cut in the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Please, please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let's not bicker and argue about who killed who.")

The result is an irksome, patronizing mess. Shamed into denying the heroism of the American soldier--from Dances with Wolves to The Last Samurai to Letters from Iwo Jima--Hollywood's best and brightest instead seize upon the exploits of the exotic "other." John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima now deemed politically incorrect, those characteristics are imprinted upon Stryker's enemy. It is a bizarre transformation, to say the least.

Related posts

The known unknowns
The Pacific War on screen
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

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# posted by Blogger bbovenguy
Wow, this is great. Thanks for writing it.

I write novels for middle-school kids (you can check out my website here), and I've just started researching and brainstorming for a book about WW2 in the Pacific. My initial inspiration comes from the letters written by my great-uncle, who was killed in action at Leyte, but I've been looking for a way to get some Japanese perspective on what happened, too.

I've thought about Eastwood's Iwo Jima movies, but I'm not sure how much inspiration I'd find. I want to include Japanese civilians in my story and there were no civilians at Iwo Jima. I'm therefore thinking about Okinawa instead. I just started reading The Girl with the White Flag. Any chance you're familiar with it? (Go here for info.) I've also found a couple of recent Japanese films about Okinawa listed at D-Addicts, but no one seems to have subbed them. Are there any resources you would recommend?

7/18/2007 3:32 PM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
Women of Okinawa: Nine Voices from a Garrison Island by Ruth Ann Keyso covers some of the material you're referring to. Although he isn't writing specifically about Okinawa, Embracing Defeat by John Dower is the definitive account of the Occupation. Director Kinji Fukasaku provides a cynical but insightful look at the life of the lowly infantryman in Under the Flag of the Rising Sun. Another interesting perspective can be found in the anime series Zipang, which looks at the Pacific War through the eyes of the modern Japanese military.
7/19/2007 10:55 AM

# posted by Blogger bbovenguy
Thanks! I'll check those out. I did run across Women of Okinawa already, so I'll definitely go back to it.
7/19/2007 1:35 PM