Perhaps empathy for the plight of the common enemy conscript is a postwar luxury; it certainly is a civilized achievement, an achievement of moral imagination that often needs the assistance of art. That is why it is notable that Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" was one of five films nominated for Best Picture.
It is stressful viewing. An unsparing attempt to come as close as cinema can to conveying the reality of combat, specifically the fighting that killed 6,821 Americans and all but 1,083 of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers on the small (eight square miles) black lava island. Remember the searing first 15 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" -- the carnage at Omaha Beach? In "Letters From Iwo Jima" it is exceeded, with harrowing permutations.
The Japanese commander on the island, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, was -- like the admiral who attacked Pearl Harbor, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto -- a cosmopolitan warrior who had lived in, and never stopped admiring, America. In 2005, a team of Japanese archaeologists scouring the island's man-made caves for artifacts of the battle found a sack of undelivered mail from Kuribayashi and other officers and soldiers. All the writers knew they faced overwhelming force -- Japan had no assistance to send -- and were doomed to die in accordance with the Japanese military code that forbade surrender and encouraged suicide.
Japanese forces frequently committed barbarities worse even than those of the German regular army, and it is difficult to gauge the culpability of conscripts commanded by barbarians. Be that as it may, the pathos of the letters humanizes the Japanese soldiers, whose fatalism was a reasonable response to the irrational. Viewers of this movie, while moved to pride and gratitude by the valor of the U.S. Marines, will not feel inclined to cheer. We are catching up to Capt. Philip's sensibility.
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