Thursday, March 8, 2012

2006 - Letters from Iwo Jima

And the Oscars have come and gone for another year. There were a couple of minor surprises - Meryl Streep winning again for the first time in almost 30 years, and the editing team of Angus Wall and Aussie Kirk Baxter scoring back-to-back wins in Film Editing. It was also nice to see Billy Crystal again. He's like a comfortable blanket. It just feels like the Oscars when he hosts. My predictions were not too embarrassing. I correctly pegged 16 winners, one better than last year, so I'll take it.

For a chuckle, take a look at the menu for my annual Oscars party.

The next nominee from the Best Picture competition of 2006 is...

Letters from Iwo Jima
Clint Eastwood
Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis
(based on the book Picture Letters from the Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, edited by Tsuyuko Yoshida)
Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Bando, Yuki, Matsuzaki
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Sound Editing

The fierce Battle of Iwo Jima is told from a Japanese perspective, the story giving focus to two particular men, representing different extremes of military personnel. General Kuribayashi (Watanabe) is the commander, newly assigned to defend the island, and acutely aware of the near impossibility of that task against the might of the US military. His job is made all the more difficult as his subordinates begin acting ... well, insubordinately. At the other end of the spectrum is Private Saigo (Ninomiya), a reluctant conscript with a determination to survive in the face of a less than pleasant superior officer.

The story is based partly on letters written by the real General Kuribayashi and, as the title indicates, they are used as one of the main thematic devices. Characters often inexplicably find the time to sit down and write their inner most thoughts (audible to us through voice over) to their loved ones waiting at home. Oddly, that particular element of the film doesn't really resonate, seeming like an old-fashioned cliche in an otherwise excellent film.

Letters from Iwo Jima features some amazing battle scenes, and lots of them. The superb cinematography and Oscar-winning sound make for gripping viewing. Not to mention the insanely graphic visual effects that allow the camera to remain focused on a soldier as he intentionally blows himself up with a hand grenade. Combined with the emotional intensity of the situation, portrayed in riveting conversations about strategy, honour and the glory of the homeland, the result is a highly engaging entry into the war genre.

Speaking of glory, the film questions the skewed concept of honour that lingered in Japanese culture. Rather than working together to defeat the enemy, many soldiers selfishly concentrate on their own failures, preferring to die completing a mission than suffer the perceived shame of retreating, even if the retreat would enable them to assist in a potentially more useful way. I mean, it seems rather obvious that you're a lot less helpful to your army after you've committed suicide, yet for many of these men, suicide is the only honourable option under the circumstances. And suicide by their own grenades, no less. Perhaps they took the phrase, "no guts, no glory" a little too literally.

It's always somewhat difficult to understand nuance in a language that you don't speak, so there is undoubtedly something in this film that non-Japanese speakers like myself will miss. Nonetheless, Ken Watanabe's performance as the commander in chief is clearly excellent, even if you have to read his lines yourself. Not known outside his home country, Japanese boy band member Kazunari Ninomiya also delivers a superbly amiable performance as the green but smart Saigo. And for the trivia buffs, if I'm not mistaken, Letters from Iwo Jima is the only American film to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.

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