(Photo: left) KAZUNARI NINOMIYA as Saigo (center) and RYO KASE as Shimizu in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and DreamWorks Pictures’ World War II drama “Letters from Iwo Jima,” directed by Clint Eastwood. Photo by Merie W. Wallace, SMPSP
“These men donated their lives to defend their country, for what their superiors thought would delay any invasion of mainland Japan,” says Eastwood, who began shooting the film shortly after completing principal photography on its companion film, “Flags of Our Fathers.” “I think it’s important for audiences, not just in Japan but everywhere, to know what kind of people they were.”
Eastwood’s intention with both films was to create a complete picture of each side of the conflict by focusing on a handful of individuals and revealing the battle through the prism of their individual experiences. “In most war pictures I grew up with, there were good guys and bad guys,” he comments. “Life is not like that and war is not like that. These movies are not about winning or losing. They are about this war’s effects on human beings and those who lose their lives much before their time.”
As he developed “Flags of Our Fathers,” the filmmaker plunged into research about the time and place in which the Pacific theatre of World War II played out. “As I did so, I became extremely curious about the unique defense that General Kuribayashi put up for the island,” Eastwood comments. “The U.S. forces didn't know why the Japanese were able to withstand such tremendous bombardment from the Navy and the Naval Air Corps.”
With the nearly hopeless task of fending off the Americans’ vast armada, Kuribayashi created his defensive strategy from the black, volcanic earth of the island itself by connecting a honeycomb of more than 18 miles of tunnels, 5,000 caves, and pillboxes from which the much smaller Japanese forces could target American troops. He instructed his troops that each man should kill 10 of the enemy before they were killed. He opposed the war with America a country for which he had a great affinity but nonetheless fought it passionately and with conviction. “I wondered what kind of person he was to defend this island in a ferocious way but also in a very clever way,” Eastwood says. “By tunnelling the island and putting everything underground, he did it differently from most of the Japanese defenses at that time. Most of them were beachhead defenses and used a lot of artillery from the sea. You couldn’t do that effectively with this particular battle. He had a lot of resistance among his own troops about his defense of the island. A lot of his fellow officers thought he was crazy doing this whole tunnelling thing.”
To learn more about the person behind the strategies, Eastwood sought to have a number of Japanese-language books translated. He came across a book of letters by General Kuribayashi himself Picture Letters From Commander In Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, edited by Tsuyuko Yoshida, published by Shogakukan-Bunko. “The letters were to his wife, his daughter, and his son,” Eastwood explains. “A lot of them were mailed from the U.S. when he was there as an envoy in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. He was a very sensitive man, very family-oriented, and missing his family very much. In those letters, you got a feeling for what he was like.”
In studying this book later, screenwriter Iris Yamashita, a second-generation Japanese-American, was equally impressed by the general’s nature. “As I read them, I was hit with the same impression that Clint must have had when those letters inspired him to make the movie,” she notes. “It was hard to believe that this soft-hearted, loving father was the commanding general of the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima. The letters were filled with doodles and caricatures and humorous sentiment. You could tell that he adored and missed his son.”
“General Kuribayashi was a unique man,” Eastwood continues. “By all accounts, he was a man of great imagination, creativity and resourcefulness.”
Researching the young men Kuribayashi led brought faces and voices equally to life. “The young conscriptees that were on the island were very much like the Americans,” Eastwood says. “They didn’t necessarily want to be in the war. They were sent there and told not to plan on coming back. This is something you could not tell an American with a straight face. Most people go into combat thinking, ‘Yes, it could be dangerous and I could get killed, but I could also make it home and get back to normal.’”
This was not the case for the young Japanese. “There was a great probability at the time that they would remain there on the island,” he says. “This is a mentality that is very hard for me personally to understand. But to try to understand that, I read as much about them and what it was like for them as I could.”
Likewise, in researching the Japanese defenders, Yamashita felt a real sense of some of the individuals whom fate had placed on the island in 1945. “The narrative just sprang to life,” she remembers, “as if the characters were just begging to have their stories told.”
Yamashita had been brought into the project by Eastwood’s collaborator Paul Haggis, who wrote “Million Dollar Baby” and co-wrote “Flags of Our Fathers,” the companion film to “Letters From Iwo Jima.” (On this film he bears executive producer credit in addition to co-writing the story with Yamashita.) Haggis recalls Eastwood’s passion for the dual projects: “Whenever he spoke about these two projects, his whole face lit up. He loves research; he loves finding out about history. He loves the detail of history and discovering some of the things that we just didn’t know, especially from the Japanese perspective some of the things that happened on the island before the battles and some of the idiosyncrasies and the funny moments.”
“Paul found Iris Yamashita to come and write the screenplay,” Eastwood offers. “She wrote a screenplay that both honors and illuminates the souls of the men whose story we’re attempting to tell.”
Yamashita took great pains to ensure accuracy in the storytelling. “I was very conscious of walking the line between the factual events and political sensitivity to the story,” she remarks.
Eastwood and producer Robert Lorenz brought Yamashita’s script to Tokyo. “We shared Iris’s script with several authorities on the subject of Iwo Jima in order to verify the accuracy of the historical events portrayed,” Lorenz attests. “With the help of William Ireton [Warner Entertainment Japan’s President & Representative Director], Clint and I sat down with the grandson of General Kuribayashi, the son of Baron Nishi, and the head of the Association of Iwo Jima Veterans. All of them embraced the project with enthusiasm and provided us with comments and some detailed information that gave the story greater authenticity.”
The final English version of the screenplay was next submitted to several Japanese translators, and the best from each was streamlined into one Japanese-language script. “‘Letters’ is an innovative project,” praises Yamashita, “part of a concept that has never been done before, and I hope I’ve been able to help create a memorial to the characters in a story that otherwise wouldn’t have been told.”
During the first trip to Japan, Eastwood sought permission from Tokyo’s Governor, Shintaro Ishihara, to film on Iwo Jima, which is considered part of Tokyo City even though it’s 700 miles away. Governor Ishihara, who had an extensive background in the arts as an actor, director and award-winning novelist prior to entering politics, showed great support for Eastwood’s dual project of both “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”
“He liked the idea of doing the story there, as long as we avoided the sacred grounds,” Eastwood notes, adding, “I didn’t think he would’ve liked us to have quite the amount of pyrotechnics we had planned on the island itself, so we did that on the beaches of Iceland, while in production on ‘Flags.’”
Eastwood’s ultimate visit to the island itself was an emotional passage for the veteran filmmaker. “It was a great experience,” he reflects, “a very moving experience to walk on the island a place where so many mothers lost their sons on both sides of the war.”
He would return months later with a small crew and actor Ken Watanabe to film the island’s caves, beaches and others locations, including the foot of the island’s stark landmark, the towering Mount Suribachi, where the Americans planted the flag in the famous photograph depicted in “Flags of Our Fathers.”
A CLASH OF NATIONS
In June 1944, even as the tide of war inexorably worsens, a new commander sets foot on Iwo Jima Imperial Army Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a figure still accorded respect on both sides of the Pacific as the Japanese commander who most challenged the American forces in the Pacific war.
Having studied in America, Kuribayashi is well informed of the West’s military and technological might. Into his hands Japan places the fate of Iwo Jima, an island garrison considered the final fortress in the nation’s defense. Unlike any commander his troops and officers have encountered, Kuribayashi immediately modernizes operations on Iwo Jima, retooling the makeshift tactics employed for years on the outpost and curtailing unfair physical punishments of subordinates.
In the inferno-like heat and sulfur-tinged air of Iwo Jima, Kuribayashi oversees construction of an underground fortress consisting of labyrinthine tunnels through the black, volcanic rock of the island. Though built under horrific conditions, with insufficient food or water for the men, the tunnels will give the troops much needed strategic leverage against the hordes of American forces advancing on them even then. On February 19, 1945, those forces finally begin pouring ashore.
Faced by an overwhelming invasion force, the Japanese resistance at Iwo Jima was predicted to last no more than five days. However, Kuribayashi’s revolutionary tactics transform the invasion into an historical battle spanning over a month.
In the midst of a war in which death is considered an honor, General Kuribayashi orders his men to fight for their lives, to live on to the end, to protect the island and hold off the Americans as long as they can for the sake of their country and loved ones back home.
To portray the complex and brilliant tactician of Iwo Jima, Eastwood cast Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe, whose work he had admired in “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “The Last Samurai.” “We met several years ago at the Academy Awards presentation,” Eastwood recalls. “I was very impressed with not only his acting ability but also his presence. He has a very good presence in person, as he does in film, and I felt that’s exactly what he needed to play General Kuribayashi.”
The internationally acclaimed actor was struck by the fact that Gen. Kuribayashi was one of the few among the Japanese military with intimate knowledge of the United States. “He studied in the United States and Canada, and was pro-American, having many American friends,” Watanabe describes. “He tried to fight for his life with all his might, for his country and family, but he also faced a dilemma in that he had to fight against a friend the United States.”
Watanabe was fascinated by the man behind the historic battle and became very involved in the role, even providing the screenwriter with suggestions based on his own research. “Ken went to Gen. Kuribayashi’s home town, met his family, and collected water to place at the memorial for Gen. Kuribayashi on the island, which is a traditional Japanese way to pay respects to those who have passed on,” explains Lorenz.
When the time came for Watanabe to shoot sequences on the island itself, the actor was overcome with emotion. “In fact, he told us that he was glad the bulk of filming had already been completed back in Los Angeles,” Lorenz remembers. “His emotions were so strong, he feared he would not have been able to complete the role after the experience he had on Iwo Jima.”
Eastwood and his longtime casting director, the late Phyllis Huffman, worked with U.S.-based Japanese casting director Yumi Takada, in collaboration with Warner Entertainment Japan, to infuse the film with an ensemble of talented performers.
“I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the actors, so I looked at the films and auditions that they did,” Eastwood says. “Acting is acting. When it’s good, it’s good, even if you don’t understand the language that’s being spoken.”
Kazunari Ninomiya, who enjoys great popularity as one of the members of the popular group “Arashi,” and who has also attracted attention as a TV and stage performer, plays Private First Class Saigo, a kindhearted soldier who promises his beloved wife Hanako (Nae) that he will come back alive from the battlefield and wants only to live to see his infant daughter. “I play an ordinary baker who is thrown into a situation that forces him to lose his humanity in order to survive,” Ninomiya offers.
Saigo is one soldier who Kuribayashi orders be spared from brutal punishment. This mercy profoundly affects his will to live. “The war is so cruel that it leaves nothing behind, and the scars of war can never fade,” says Ninomiya.
General Kuribayashi’s style of overturning conventions alienates some veteran officers but also gains him staunch supporters, including Lt. Colonel Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) a famous nobleman and Equestrian Gold Medal winner at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Tsuyoshi Ihara, well known for his performances in films such as “Han-ochi” and “Minna no Ie,” and in the stage play “Rouningai,” plays the role of Baron Nishi. “At the time of the Olympic Games, he became an honorary citizen of Los Angeles,” Ihara reveals. “He was well known and popular among Americans. Therefore, it is said among people in Japan that if Baron Nishi alone was sent to the United States, he would do much better diplomatic work than many diplomats.”
Like General Kuribayashi, Baron Nishi considered the Americans his friends. In fact, in their research the filmmakers uncovered a tale of an American filmmaker, Sy Bartlett, who knew Baron Nishi from his time in Los Angeles. “Bartlett landed on Iwo Jima after it had been taken over by the United States and learned that his friend Baron Nishi was on the island,” Lorenz explains. “So, he did a broadcast over the public address system asking for him to come out and surrender.”
“I wish I could know how he felt when he heard the announcement from the U.S. Army, which went something like, ‘Baron Nishi, you are our friend, please come out!’” Ihara recounts. “I wish we could tell through this movie why human beings fight.”
Superior Private Shimizu, the young and idealistic former member of Tokyo’s military police force who learns hard lessons in war, is played by Ryo Kase, whose unique performances in films such as “Pacchigi!,” “Antenna” and “Scrap Heaven” garnered worldwide attention. “Shimizu discovers that he is a man who can choose to change things without sticking to or giving up the ideals he believes in, even in situations where those are collapsing,” says Kase. “I believe that he has real courage to choose what’s right for him in this situation.”
Throughout production, Kase put himself in his character’s shoes. “I had a very strong feeling that I didn’t want do die,” he recalls. “I wanted to live much longer all through the filming period. I felt like I should keep this feeling all through my life.”
Shidou Nakamura, the renowned Kabuki performer who garnered acclaim for his film work in “Yamato,” “Ping-Pong” and “Ima Ai ni Yukimasu,” and attracted global recognition opposite Jet Li in the film “Fearless,” plays Lieutenant Ito, a more traditional leader who initially rejects Kuribayashi’s unconventional strategies. “He is a strict warrior who was educated and trained as a military officer,” describes Nakamura. “His conviction, even at the ultimate crisis, was such that he would rather kill himself as an honorable warrior than survive by way of retreat. Ito may be thought to be pitiable, but actually, I believe he was very human.”
When the time came to commence production, the language barrier was almost non-existent between the American director and his Japanese cast. Their communication seemed to transcend spoken language. “I must say this ensemble of actors is as good as I have ever worked with,” Eastwood says. “I think I have worked with pretty good ones in the past, but this group their work ethic was just number one. It was a very pleasant, easy experience,” he adds, joking, “even though I never understood what they were saying!”
For the actors, the film represented a tremendous opportunity to work with a master filmmaker on a project that meant something to all of them. “It was really the most precious and wonderful experience for me, as an actor and, moreover, as a human being to work under the direction of Clint Eastwood,” says Tsuyoshi Ihara. “Clint Eastwood and all the crew were eager to make a really splendid film. Such was the atmosphere on set. They all were very kind and welcoming to us. Even though we had different cultures and languages, there should be no difference in the performance of actors and actresses. I dared to give him several suggestions and he accepted them. I will treasure it all through my life.”
Shidou Nakamura agrees. “Production was something like an extended chat,” he says. “We could put our natural emotions into the performance.”
Cast member Nae, who plays Saigo’s wife, adds, “When I saw ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ it became my dream to have a role in his movie. It is really wonderful to work under his direction. He is a gentle and splendid director.”
Eastwood’s tendency to afford actors the freedom to explore their roles is one of the director’s gifts, executive producer Paul Haggis comments: “He loves Haiku. He finds the emotion in the scenes, but he lets the actors really create within their realm, so that it’s a cooperation of artists. It’s a collaboration. And that’s why I think artists love him. That’s why actors love him and why writers love him. He really demands the best of you. I mean, he demands it. But then, he accepts it. And he moves on. And that’s a great way of making films.”
Though the actors performed scenes involving the unspeakable brutalities of war, Eastwood allowed them time to find their own moments of quiet truth. “He listened to my opinions and adopted many of them,” recalls Ken Watanabe. “He was just like my father in that sense. The atmosphere on his set was always warm, strong and intelligent and very comfortable in every phase.”
Along with “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters From Iwo Jima” utilized combat footage shot on the black sand beaches of Iceland, as well as Iwo Jima itself. Portions of the film were shot on soundstages at Warner Bros. and on location around Los Angeles.
ECHOES OF THE PAST
For Eastwood, who has never tackled a war picture of such scale much less two making “Letters From Iwo Jima” afforded him an opportunity to pay tribute to the fighting men in a very personal way, without taking on the politics of war itself.
“There are still 12,000 unaccounted for Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima,” Eastwood says. “I think those lives deserve a spirit, a certain respect, just as I feel the American forces deserve respect. I feel terrible for both sides in that war and in all wars. There are an awful lot of innocent people that are sacrificed in those situations, and if we can show something of their lives through these young men now, it will be a tribute to these people who gave their lives for their country.”
“We can understand somewhere in the back of our minds that war is not good,” adds Watanabe, “but it is rather seldom that we hate war from the bottom of our hearts in daily life. When you see what was done there, the reality of it, you will never wish to send your sons or sweethearts to war.”
At the time of World War II, Eastwood was a teenager, “but I remember that I was pleased it was over,” he recalls. “Everybody around the world was yearning for a peaceful state. I just hope we all have many peaceful states in our lifetime…all of us.”
2006 Film Entertainment Magazine / EMOL.org. All rights reserved.