Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ (2006)

I decided to watch this again a few days ago having just taught a student who this week is going to visit the island of Iwo-jima which is actually part of Tokyo albeit a long, long way south (750 km) of the mainland. Most of the scenes weren’t actually filmed there though but on the black sand beaches of Sandvik in the south-west of Iceland. Clint Eastwood directed this film straight off the back of the less successful ‘Flags of our Fathers‘ in order to give the Japanese perspective and when I originally watched it on its release in 2006 I admittedly wasn’t expecting anything more than just being able to tell students that I had seen it. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

This Hollywood production gets full credit first and foremost for not going anywhere near the usual Japanese stereotypes portrayed in most other films. It is clearly distinguishable from all the other films set in Japan with no need to rely on any stereotypical images of Japanese society and is supposedly scripted with excellent research into Japanese society at that time. Secondly, it used nearly all Japanese actors rather than American-Japanese or other Asian actors. This doesn’t bother me so much but its something the Japanese often get worked up about in the name of authenticity. Finally, all but about five minutes of the films 141 minute length features Japanese dialogue but despite the length and need for subtitles I was captivated throughout which for someone like me, with a short attention span, is very rare.

The main characters all have interesting stories to tell which are shown via a few flashback scenes. Ken Watanabe, by far the most famous Japanese actor (if not the only one) known overseas, may be the lead role but the true star of the film is the baby faced Shingo; the baker with a pregnant wife, who is called up to fight for his country. He is a frightened, anxious man full of hope and battling against the harsh regime of the Japanese army. He wants to realise just one dream which is to get home to see his daughter.

 

The film starts off in the present day with someone discovering the letters on the island and then its back to 1944 as the film really draws you into the caves and makes you a part of the Japanese soldier’s life. We see them basically defend the island to the death which General Kuribayashi (Watanabe) says is of utmost importance. The utter hopelessness of their situation is quite a recurring thing and time and time again we hear of the soldiers dying with honour and courage in the line of duty against the American invasion and we even hear that it’s “our fate to find our place at Yasukuni Shrine.”

Overall, I was thoroughly engrossed throughout this emotionally powerful movie and I’d probably even go as far to say that it’s one of the best war films out there and Clint Eastwood deserves all the accolades that came with this picture. The ironic thing is that it is he who has made this film rather than the Japanese themselves and if you didn’t know anything about the production you’d naturally assume it was not a domestic production.

 

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TF Film Review: The Last Samurai (2003)

I gave this film a very short brief review back in 2006 with brief being the word! I only said it was better than expected but too long for my liking which I say for any film over two hours. In preparation for my recent trip to Kansai I decided to watch it again. Whilst I (still) don’t mind it, its not my kind of film and it just goes to show how the filming locations and the movie itself can work hand-in-hand both ways. As you’d expect its the film first which often leads to the interest in the locations but this one worked the other way round with me.

Most of the film was made in New Zealand but Japanese locations included Chion-in temple and Nijo-jo in Kyoto and Engyoji temple in Himeji as featured in my ‘The Last Samurai filming locations’ article recently.

The film may move along at quite a slow pace and may be predictable in its outcome (hence the title!) but the casting, costumes, landscapes, storyline and film direction are very good with some fine battle scenes to boot. Hans Zimmer’s score incorporates traditional wood flutes and thunderous drums which adds a nice touch and adds to the suspense, sadness, empathy and joy.

The samurai have only one true goal which is to serve their Emperor and believed that to die under his service is an honour. The Japanese are accustomed to killing themselves in shame after defeat which they think is a noble death whereas Cruise’s character Algren shows his resilience, determination and perseverance by continuously rising again after defeat. As far as I know this is the film that really brought Ken Watanabe to western audiences for his poignant portrayal as the leader of the last clan of Samurai. The scenes between Watanabe and Cruise held my interest in terms of their feelings of hostility, compassion and camaraderie.

He may often get a hard time from the critics but Tom Cruise is loved by his fans and in this epic he perhaps delivers his most powerful performance in cinema. The Last Samurai shows a human story of one Westerner learning to embrace another culture but unlike most other films set in Japan it is done in a more subtle way where both parties realise they can learn from one another and after a hostile start they develop a respect for each other.