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Red Sun, Black Sand

Rama Gottumukkala | Friday, February 2, 2007

The art of writing letters, that once great vessel of human emotion, is slipping steadily into distant memory. Keystrokes have supplanted penmanship for documenting our most heartfelt hopes, dreams and wishes. Of this increasingly quaint practice, Elizabeth Hardwick, an American literary critic, once wrote, “Letters are above all useful as a means of expressing the ideal self; and no other method of communication is quite so good for this purpose.”

In his most accomplished artistic statement to date, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” director Clint Eastwood addresses Hardwick’s romantic notion headlong, for the soul of Eastwood’s film is revealed not through words but in the aching sentiments and desperate scrawls of soldiers, written shortly before sacrificing their lives.

Originally titled “Red Sun, Black Sand,” an elegantly vague alias, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is a tale of honor about Japan, a nation that cherishes that virtue above all others. Set 61 years ago, it reveals the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who fought and died there, and whose several hundred letters, unearthed many decades later, inspired the film’s emotion.

Shortly after wrapping production on “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004, a film that earned him dual Oscar statuettes for Best Director and Best Picture, Eastwood undertook his most ambitious project yet – a World War II opus seen through the eyes of the American and Japanese forces that invaded and defended that island’s harsh black soil. The clash at Iwo Jima had tremendous implications for both nations. Over 20,000 Japanese troops, forced to guard the tiny island with only ground forces, and 7,000 Americans perished in a battle that lasted almost a month longer than the United States expected.

Wisely, Eastwood decided to split the expansive story into two segments. While “Flags of Our Fathers,” the American take on the conflict, was a fine picture, it’s in “Letters from Iwo Jima” that the veteran director most fully realizes his goal. With poignancy and reverence, he shows us the harsh truths of war and its ability to reveal the very best and worst qualities of the human race.

With over 20,000 voices to consider, Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita settled upon a handful of generals and soldiers, navigating them through the bloody conflict. The story begins with the arrival of Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) to the shores of Iwo Jima. Having studied in America, Kuribayashi is sent to fortify the island defenses against the impending arrival of the American armada. A brilliant tactician, he forgoes more traditional trench warfare techniques, devising a scheme to dig expansive underground tunnels through the black volcanic rock of the island.

In an early scene, Kuribayashi steps out from the plane and into the light. As he surveys the vast, desolate reaches of Iwo Jima’s shoreline, we are privy to his innermost thoughts, revealed through his first letter.

“I am determined to serve and give my life for my country,” he writes, the key word being determined. Knowing full well the extent of America’s military might, Kuribayashi has come to this island to die, like an ancient samurai whetting his blade before his final battle. Eastwood spends the next two hours helping us to understand why.

Embracing his inescapable fate, Kuribayashi, a kind but firm leader, implores his troops to make these tunnels the last stand against the waves of American troops who make landfall halfway through the film. The Japanese soldiers digging those tunnels include Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), an idealistic baker unused to the terrors of warfare, and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a quiet, reserved former member of Tokyo’s military police force. Both men are young and idealistic, forced to deal with violence and death despite the contradictions to their gentle natures.

Perhaps Kuribayashi’s staunchest supporter is Lt. Colonel Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a Japanese nobleman and Equestrian Gold Medal winner at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Nishi, like Kuribayashi, faces a stern moral challenge because of his fondness for his friends in America. Together, they form the emotional core of the film and a moral compass for American audiences trained to abhor Japan as the faceless enemy in most World World II films. Emanating strength and nobility, their performances are the strongest in a film that features a superb cast and unrelentingly powerful performances. Watanabe is no stranger to themes of honor and sacrifice for his country, having previously debuted in the American consciousness with “The Last Samurai.” Just as Wantanabe was a boon in that film, Ihara is a gem in this one.

Horrifying, powerful, visceral, uplifting, bleak and deeply affecting, “Iwo Jima” covers the gamut of emotions. It’s a deeply human film, one of those rare war pictures that reveres life even as it takes so much of it. The movie says more about war in its quietest lull than the loudest cacophonies of lesser films like “Pearl Harbor” and “Windtalkers.”

A little past the midway point of the movie, the Japanese troops win a minor victory. Briefly halting the tide of the American forces, they wound and capture an enemy. Despite their dwindling medical supplies, Nishi orders his team’s medic to tend to the American soldier and introduces himself. “I lived in California for a while,” Nishi says in excellent English, adding that he considers Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, two of Hollywood’s most beloved film stars from that time period, to be good friends.

Eyes wide with wonder at their mention, the soldier, who looks barely old enough to shave, responds in kind. “Oklahoma is where I’m from,” he admits through the pain. In that one moment, the connection between these two men, meeting in the harshest of scenarios, is revealed. Their respect is mutual. Had they met in another life, they might even be friends. The scene ends shortly thereafter, and the bloodshed continues.

On a technical level, every aspect of “Letters from Iwo Jima” is transcendent, with four Academy Award nominations to its name – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound Editing and Best Original Screenplay. But “Iwo Jima” is a film of such harsh beauty, it deserves a dozen more. Chief amongst these is the stark and evocative cinematography employed by Tom Stern, a longtime Eastwood collaborator. Utilizing a desaturated color palette, Stern has seemingly leached away all the vitality in the film, leaving a pallor that suits the film’s mood.

Eastwood has claimed Best Director honors twice at the Oscars, for 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” and 1992’s “Unforgiven.” While both of those triumphs were deserved, his latest directorial effort – completed at the tender age of 76 – surpasses them. Every great picture has a signature moment that stands the test of time, causing viewers to ruminate on its impact decades after its completion. “Letters from Iwo Jima” has at least half a dozen, more than enough to make it the best war film since 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

While crafted with the cinema, the most visual of mediums, in mind, here is a film that has all the affection, melancholy, warmth and genuine human feeling of the most sincere, handwritten letter.

It took an American director born and bred in westerns to show us the high costs of war for the ravaged nation of Japan. Eastwood and his collaborators make us care so deeply for these characters, these human beings, that when they fall, we can barely stand to watch.

Readying his troops for the final banzai charge, Kuribayashi addresses them in the pale moonlight.

“A day will come when they will weep and pray for your souls,” he says with a tender but steely resolve. He draws his samurai sword, the most revered symbol of the motherland he will die to protect. “I will always be in front of you,” he concludes.

Sixty-one years later, that day has come.