Eastwood: Letters from Iwo Jima

Sixty-one years ago, the American and Japanese armies met on Iwo Jima. Decades later, several hundred letters are unearthed from that stark islands soil. The letters give faces and voices to the men who fought there, as well as the extraordinary general who led them.

The Japanese soldiers are sent to Iwo Jima knowing that, in all probability, they will not come back. Among them are Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who wants only to live to see the face of his newborn daughter; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian champion known around the world for his skill and his honor; Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a young former military policeman whose idealism has not yet been tested by war; and Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), a strict military man who would rather accept suicide than surrender.

Leading the defense is Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), whose travels in America have revealed to him the hopeless nature of the war but also given him strategic insight into how to take on the vast American armada streaming in from across the Pacific. With little defense other than sheer will and the volcanic rock of the island itself, Gen. Kuribayashis unprecedented tactics transform what was predicted to be a quick and bloody defeat into nearly 40 days of heroic and resourceful combat.

Almost 7,000 American soldiers were killed on Iwo Jima; more than 20,000 Japanese troops perished. The black sands of Iwo Jima are stained with their blood, but their sacrifices, their struggles, their courage and their compassion live on in the letters they sent home.

From Oscar winner Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven) comes the untold story of the Japanese soldiers and their General who, 61 years ago, defended against the invading American forces on the island of Iwo Jima.

Event Resonating with Both Cultures

In an effort to explore an event that continues to resonate with both cultures, Eastwood was haunted by the sense that making only one film–Flags of Our Fathers–would be telling only half the story. With this unprecedented dual film project, shot back-to-back to be released in sequence, Eastwood seeks to reveal the battle of Iwo Jima–and, by implication, the war in the Pacific–as a clash not only of arms but of cultures.

While they tell separate stories from different perspectives and in different languages, Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers are Eastwoods tribute to those who lost lives on both sides of the conflict. The director hopes to tell both sides of the story and, with any luck, collectively reveal a new way of looking at this profoundly affecting moment in our shared history.

The ensemble cast also includes Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shidou Nakamura and Nae. Directed by Eastwood from a screenplay by Japanese-American screenwriter Iris Yamashita, story by Yamashita and Oscar winner Paul Haggis (Crash), the film is produced by Eastwood, Oscar winner Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Schindlers List) and Oscar nominee Robert Lorenz (Mystic River).

Eastwoods longtime collaborators head the creative behind-the-scenes team: director of photography Tom Stern; costume designer Deborah Hopper; editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; and production designers Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami. Phyllis Huffman served as casting director. The music is by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima are the last films of both Mr. Bumstead and Ms. Huffman. The former is dedicated to their memory.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

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 its important for audiences, not just in Japan but everywhere, to know what kind of people they were.

Eastwoods 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 wars 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.

What Kind of Person Kuribayashi Was

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 couldnt 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.

Screenwriter Iris Yamashita

In studying this book later, screenwriter Iris Yamashita, a second-generation Japanese-American, was equally impressed by the generals 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 didnt 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 Eastwoods 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.)

Paul Haggis

Haggis recalls Eastwoods 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 didnt 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 were 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 Yamashitas script to Tokyo. We shared Iriss 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 Japans 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 Ive been able to help create a memorial to the characters in a story that otherwise wouldnt have been told.

Trip to Japan

During the first trip to Japan, Eastwood sought permission from Tokyos Governor, Shintaro Ishihara, to film on Iwo Jima, which is considered part of Tokyo City even though its 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 Eastwoods 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 didnt think he wouldve 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. Eastwoods 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 islands caves, beaches and others locations, including the foot of the islands stark landmark, the towering Mount Suribachi, where the Americans planted the flag in the famous photograph depicted in Flags of Our Fathers.

Freedom to the Actors

Eastwoods tendency to afford actors the freedom to explore their roles is one of the directors 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 its a cooperation of artists. Its a collaboration. And thats why I think artists love him. Thats 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 thats 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 lifetimeall of us.