Views of Iwo Jima

Japanese responses to Clint Eastwood's Oscar contender

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Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima has been met with near-unanimous stateside praise for its humanistic portrayal of the infamous 1945 battle. It became the first film primarily in the Japanese language to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar — on Feb. 25 it vies for an Academy Award in that category and three others. Eastwood himself has called it a "Japanese film." But how have Japanese audiences and critics responded?

There's been a spate of Hollywood productions set in Japan in recent years — Lost in Translation, The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, to name a few. Each film scored various degrees of commercial success in the United States, but most Japanese audiences agreed that the portrayals of Japanese ranged from well-meaning but a little bit off to downright offensive. With the exception of The Last Samurai, which rode Tom Cruise's popularity, none performed particularly well at the Japanese box office.

Letters was met with considerable anticipation as soon as the production was announced. Word spread that Eastwood was considering having a Japanese filmmaker direct the project. (He reportedly muttered, "Akira Kurosawa would've been perfect.") Once it was confirmed that Eastwood would be taking the helm himself, there were equal amounts of excitement and skepticism. In Japan, Eastwood had been one of the most highly regarded American filmmakers for many years, particularly after Unforgiven, whose fresh treatment of the western genre resonated with samurai movie fans. Yet given the track record of American directors taking on Japan, some suspicion was inevitable.

Letters' companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers, opened first, to generally rave reviews, with solid if unspectacular box office numbers. Letters made its world premiere in Tokyo on Nov. 15, 2006, and opened theatrically Dec. 9, 11 days ahead of the US release. To date it's grossed more than $41 million in Japan (and still going strong), as opposed to a mere $10 million in the US, despite the Oscar nomination and the praise heaped on the film. (Flags, by comparison, grossed $33 million here and $29 million in Japan.) Pop star Kazunari Ninomiya, one of the notable cast members, helped draw a younger audience, many of whom reported having been averse to war movies until taking the leap with this film.

A quick survey of published reviews and blogs in Japan indicated that critics and audiences alike have responded with extremely, if not unanimously, positive comments. Historians have indicated that with the exception of some minor inaccuracies, the film is well researched and essentially true to the events that occurred, while film reviewers have already anointed it a masterpiece for our times. Here's a sampling of some comments found:

"If one were to see this film without any prior knowledge of its director or production team, there would be no reason to believe this isn't a bona fide Japanese film."

"When the two films are seen together, there's a chemical reaction that's never before seen in the history of cinema."

"Seeing the American soldiers fill the beach, I'd wonder if Doc [from Flags] is somewhere in that crowd. That's when I realized the effect that seeing both films can have."

"Japanese American writer Iris Yamashita deserves tremendous praise for the incredible detail with which she depicts what is, for her, essentially a foreign story."

"My generation grew up watching films that showed the ugliness and cruelty of Japanese Imperial soldiers, so I didn't know how to respond to seeing such proud and beautiful Japanese soldiers in Letters."

To be sure, some have also pointed out blemishes.

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