- Letters from Iwo Jima, and: So Sad to Fall in Battle: An Account of War Based on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s Letters from Iwo Jima
War movies are extremely difficult to make because directors must compress chronologies, simplify complex issues, and focus on heroic or tragic personalities to present a comprehensible narrative to the audience. Letters From Iwo Jima displays all those characteristics yet is a very good war movie. The portrayal of Lt. Gen. Kurabayashi Tadamichi is mostly faithful to the man. He did walk the island on daily circuits, sometimes even twice a day, to inspect defensive preparations and the state of his troops. He did order officers and men to share the same rations, highly unusual in the rank- [End Page 1295] conscious Japanese army. Kurabayashi's other persona, the strict disciplinarian, stickler for military courtesies (work details excepted), and micromanager who demanded instantaneous execution of his orders, did not make the screen.
While the movie revolves around Kurabayashi, the larger theme is the common humanity shared by the Japanese soldiers and the U.S. Marines. A letter found on a captured young Marine, translated and read aloud by a sophisticated Japanese colonel (who actually existed), strikes a responsive chord among the troops who remark it's just the sort of message a Japanese mother would write to her son. There are also shared atrocities, Japanese killing Marine prisoners and Marines doing the same, apparently to remind the audience of universal guilt.
These bromides could make for a hackneyed story line, but the superb acting by the Japanese cast and the top-notch directing by Clint Eastwood bring through the human qualities of various personalities, ranging from the familiar and stereotypical xenophobic fanatic through urbane cosmopolitan commanders to conscripts bemoaning the fate that brought them to Iwo Jima. Excellent special effects add authenticity to the gritty battle scenes and the depiction of the troglodyte existence of Japanese soldiers is remarkable. The movie never drags and offers Western audiences a sympathetic perspective on the Japanese soldier as a human being, not merely an unthinking, suicidal fanatic.
The film opens with shot of a black granite memorial atop Mount Surabachi that commemorates the Japanese war dead on the island. This is not explained, but is worth saying, especially because Kuribayashi exhorts his surviving troops with promises that one day the nation will praise their souls and recognize their sacrifice. So Sad to Fall in Battle fulfills Kurabayashi's vow.
Kumiko Kakehashi's anecdotal narrative of Iwo Jima is arranged around Kurabayshi's letters from the island to his family, and is one of the two books used as a basis for the movie. There is repetition in her account, likely because she only had a limited availability of letters (41 letters over eight months, p. 14), which she supplements with interviews, mainly with members of the Kurabayashi family. Kakehashi's heroic narrative is subject to a great deal of her conjecture, some accurate, some perhaps fanciful. She is, however, cautious and qualifies hearsay accounts of noble deeds or gossip about Kurabayashi (p. 45). Her anecdotal accounts illustrate the army's workings, but she lacks understanding of Japanese strategy, command relationships, and the wartime situation. There are a few minor errors such as identifying Tanemura Sako, 20th section chief, imperial general headquarters as XX Corps commander (p. xxiv).
Kakehashi was born in 1961 and acknowledges that she had little awareness of Japan's war. She is representative of that second postwar generation and perhaps her book became an instant best seller in Japan and won prestigious awards because her treatment informs a general ignorance among that age group about the war and Iwo Jima. While much of what she writes is well known to specialists, it...