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Review - Letters From Iwo Jima (DVD)

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Script: Iris Yamashita

30 April 2007

Around 1980 in a church somewhere in Poland, a couple stand ready to receive a blessing. Only it’s not from a priest but from Lech Walesa, the then leader of Solidarity. This is the penultimate scene of the Andrzej Wajda film Man of Iron (1981) that details the resistance of Solidarity to Polish Stalinism. For Wajda his career had begun with another resistance film Kanal (1956) a devastating account of the Warsaw uprising in 1944 against the NAZIS and against the backdrop of the prospect of help from Stalin – whose tanks were just a few hundred meters away across the Vistula.

Kanal tells the story of the lives of a few surviving groups of fighters who held out in the Warsaw sewers and tunnels until the very bitter end. The film is an unforgettable experience – an experience that Iris Yamashita, the person responsible for the script of Letters From Iwo Jima, may have had as we see the remnants of his Japanese imperial army become troglodytes in the caves of Iwo Jima. A high number die of dysentery.  Many are killed and others kill themselves. But unlike the final couple left in Wajda’s Kanal the two left here –  general Tadamichi Kuribayashi (portrayed on screen by Ken Watanabe) and Private Saigo (played by Kazunari Ninomiya) are comic and tragic anti-heroes.

Watanabe gives a great performance as the tragic general Kuribayashi. It’s a performance that must have appealed to the conservative element in Japan (the letters from Iwo Jima are based Kuribayashi’s actual correspondence). But the film succeeds in linking the fate of the ‘honourable dissident’ Kuribayashi (who had opposed the war drive against America) to a strange companion private Saigo. Saigo is a very touching reincarnation of another army subversive idiot – the good soldier Svejk – the comic creation of the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek. But Yamashita’s subversive invention of Saigo is only the start of his work on the script. This work will will have a lasting effect on the future of Japanese film (Eastwood’s direction is good but clunks along here and there).

For alongside Hasek’s original also lurk the shadows of Bertolt Brecht’s Svejk in The Second World War.  The scene where Saigo is asked to take out a latrine bucket and then sees the US Navy arriving and survives it’s bombardment of the shore – is pure Svejk. The odd interludes where Brecth’s Svejk wanders the cold and deserted battlefields echo the aimless wandering of Saigo through the cavernous mountain tunnels while everyone and everything around him collapses into whirls of dust. 

Forty years had to go by before Andrzej Wajda could reverse the horrors depicted in Kanal and celebrate Solidarity’s de-Stalinzation of Poland in Man of Iron. The reception of Letter From Iwo Jima in Japan has been very positive. Despite some critical opposition it remained in the top ten for over five weeks.  But the real significance of Letters From Iwo Jima will be in its after effect. One can only hope it will help put into production Japanese films that critically examine Japan’s recent imperial history.


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