Or both? Last night I had the pleasure of watching Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwojima, which is a superb and beautiful movie with a genuine sensitivity to both Japan’s sad war history and to its wartime culture. It’s all the more impressive for having been directed by an American (and from a generation not renowned for their sensitivity towards Japanese feelings over the war), who obviously gave the Japanese a great deal of space to express their own culture within the movie. However, while I was watching it I found myself torn between repulsion and respect for the Japanese general, Kuribayashi, who had the sad task of setting up 20,000 Japanese men to die for no good purpose. Reflecting on this movie, I’m really not sure if it can be placed into the small number of movies that offer a genuine critique of the futility and stupidity of war (and especially of that war, for the Japanese), or whether it is just another chapter in the long and disappointing history of movies that defend or glorify war through the vehicle of its horrors and futility.

First, though, the good. This movie has a gentle and understated tone in the first half, as we watch the preparations for the island’s defense and the fears of the various Japanese soldiers are portrayed through letters home, and through the ordinary soldiers’ conversations with each other. We have occasional flashbacks to their lives before the war, the circumstances of their recruitment or their assignment to Iwo Jima, and some of the politics that undermine the efforts of General Kuribayashi to defend his island. Kuribayashi’s vicious defensive plan is described but not in so much detail that it bogs down the story. The story is primarily told through the eyes of an ordinary soldier called Saigo, who has a wife and child at home and is desperate not to die. He has many lucky escapes both from the cruelty of his own superior officers and from the vicissitudes of battle.

The film also offers a novel perspective on the US Marines, because it treats them just as the enemy is usually treated in a war movie of old: they are just faceless foes who need to be killed, and until near the end of the movie we do not see them or hear them, or learn anything about them. There are only really three face-to-face encounters between Japanese soldiers and Americans, and in one of these encounters we see US cruelty that is known about by historians but usually glossed over in war movies. In many ways this movie depicts the key properties of allied and Japanese propaganda that I described in my series of posts about the book War Without Mercy: the Japanese see the Americans as inferior and barbaric, their suspicions that they will be treated badly on surrender are confirmed by Marine savagery, but the movie itself ends with a (somewhat jarring) moment in which the Japanese soldiers adopt a moral message taken from a dead Marine’s letter: just as described in the last chapters of the book, this American movie maker begins to portray the Japanese as good captives, receptive to American moralisms and cultural tropes now that they have been subjugated.

This unconscious lapse into one of the classic propaganda tropes of the war’s victors made me aware of the possibility that this movie is not as radical as perhaps some reviewers of it might like to think. The decision to portray the entire episode through the eyes of the losers was a bold and impressive move, but I found myself ultimately disappointed by the depiction of General Kuribayashi. We’re obviously intended to view him sympathetically: he’s something of a radical in the war effort, rejecting suicide tactics and favouring gentle treatment of his men, and he obviously believes the war is lost. Having lived in the USA he understands (as did the ill-fated Admiral Yamamoto) that Japan cannot defeat such a titan, and yet he does all he is ordered to do, and does it well. I think this movie asks us to view this as a noble tragedy, of a man doing his best in circumstances he cannot escape, and maintaining his humanity throughout, but I think there were two fatal flaws in the depiction of this character: one, that his supposedly noble humanitarianism was really just a kind of utilitarian brutality; and two, that we never see him struggling with or justifying the one decision he never even considers – surrender.

The sense projected in the movie, through letters and flashbacks and his dealings with Saigo, are that he is a humanitarian, a general who cares about his men and their wellbeing. But whenever he deals with his men as soldiers, or as a group subject to his orders, his reasoning is always strictly utilitarian. He forbids suicide charges due to their futility, but at the end when there is nothing left to fight for he himself leads a charge, rather than surrender. He stops a captain from beating his soldiers, but not out of any leniency on footsoldiers who have been voicing the same doubts of victory that he voices to his comrade Nishi; rather, he doesn’t want men wasted – his issue is with the stupidity of the punishment, not with its necessity. Similarly when he rescues Saigo from an unnecessary beheading, his reasoning is that Saigo was following orders, not that beheading men for cowardice is wrong. Nothing in his actions questions the fundamentals of the war, his role in it or the inevitable expendability of his men – and he certainly doesn’t hesitate to leave his men for dead or to command their deaths when the battle begins. He is also remarkably uncritical of his own peers and his leadership: when he learns that the Navy have been lying to him about their defeat in the Marianas and the impossibility of naval support, he seems singularly unfazed. Would he react the same way if his privates were revealed to be shirking off work, or surrendering quickly?

The second, bigger problem I had with the supposed sensitivity of his portrayal is very simple: he didn’t surrender. I know it’s a historical movie, so he can’t (everyone here is trapped in an infinite loop of cruel slaughter that no one can escape), but this doesn’t mean I have to be subjected to a vision of him as a gentle and kind soldier when the inexorable flow of the story is to the pointless deaths of 30,000 men. Kuribayashi had another, simple option at the beginning of summer, about halfway through the movie, when he discovered that the Navy had been lying to him about the powers and disposal of the Combined Fleet: he could have arrested his admirals and navy commanders for treason, had them shot in front of their men, and then surrendered the island and all the men on it to the Americans. This would have meant the bloodless capture of Iwo Jima four months earlier, which would have ended the war – which Kuribayashi already knew was lost – four months earlier, which would have meant four months less of starvation, burning and mass murder on the Japanese mainland, as well as four months’ less brutality and oppression in China. Furthermore, this surrender would have sent shockwaves through the other isolated islands of the Pacific, and by shaking the Americans’ belief that the Japanese would never surrender, it might have led them to consider alternatives to the nuclear attacks on Japan. Of course, Kuribayashi didn’t surrender, and it’s good that the movie presents the actual events of Iwo Jima rather than my silly alternative universe ideals; but the fact that he didn’t surrender really makes me doubt the depiction of him as a man who cares for his men. Or perhaps more viscerally, it makes me doubt the depiction of him as a good man. I guess the movie would have been less popular if instead of showing a man tortured by his inevitable noble sacrifice, it showed a hard and cruel leader who used his men efficiently rather than with the casual brutality and scorn that seems to characterize much of the Japanese high command. It’s probably not a palatable alternative, and certainly wouldn’t have been popular in Japan, to have the central relationship of the movie not Saigo’s gentle respect for his noble leader, but the continuing dialectic of conflict between the human needs of the men and Kuribayashi’s burning desire to use them pitilessly and efficiently to kill as many Americans as possible, for no better purpose than to keep Japan independent for a few more months.

The final scenes of this movie have Kuribayashi leading a so-called banzai charge, the single most futile expression of the cruelty and inhumanity of Japan’s WW2 military. This charge was led by a man who had banned such charges earlier as counter-productive, and it is obviously intended to be viewed as noble but tragic. Watching this, I just felt it was pathetic and hopeless, and I would like to see more war movies which, rather than just viewing the war through the ordinary soldier’s eyes, actually try to critique it through their eyes. I think Letters from Iwo Jima goes part of the way towards doing this, but it fails at the last, and it fails for a simple reason: Japan’s war in the Pacific was a horrible mistake that plunged millions of people across a huge swathe of the world into 15 years of bloody darkness, none more so than the people of Japan itself. Portraying Japan’s experience of this war sensitively is a sign that the west has matured in its approach to the USA’s (inevitable) victory in that senseless war, but portraying Japan’s experience sensitively is also a very difficult task, because of that simple fact. In my opinion, you can’t properly approach this task by the kind of narrative presented in Letters from Iwo Jima. Instead, I think a more radical narrative is required, one that presents a more nuanced and critical view of the relationship between the fascist, repressive Japanese military leadership and its supposedly passive military mass. Elevating the leadership to the position of noble losers doesn’t, in my view, achieve that goal: instead, it serves to reinforce the view that war is a fundamentally noble enterprise in which, unfortunately, a few eggs need to be broken in order to make the omelet.

Japan’s experience of World War 2 is a clear case of “war, what is it good for?” – a whole generation burned away in a conflagration with no purpose and no hope of victory. I don’t think that approaching the enemy from a position of sensitivity and understanding (as Clint Eastwood is obviously trying to do in this movie) should mean throwing away that simple fact. Rather, it means incorporating it, and presenting your view of the war first and foremost with a critique of the leadership, the criminals who pushed ordinary citizens like Saigo into that fire. While this movie does a beautiful and impressive job of presenting folks like Saigo as real people rather than faceless enemies, I think it fails to be sufficiently critical of Kuribayashi, who may have been a great guy to his family but still failed to intervene in the senseless deaths of 30,000 people, because he clearly thought that those deaths were right and just. Such men are history’s greatest criminals, and I think that there should be more space in the narrative for recognition of their flaws.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that I could do a better job. This movie is a splendid piece of work, a great showcase of the subtleties of ordinary Japanese life and culture, and deserves its critical acclaim. It’s definitely worth watching and deserves acclaim, as well, for taking on the rare and difficult task of viewing “our” victory through “their” eyes. If you appreciate war movies and you’re interested in seeing an American perspective on the Japanese in the war, I definitely recommend it.