Letters from Iwo Jima: The Japanese Side of the Story

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.

General Kuribayashi

Having studied in America, Kuribayashi is well informed of the Wests military and technological might. Into his hands Japan places the fate of Iwo Jima, an island garrison considered the final fortress in the nations 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, Kuribayashis 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.

Ken Watanabe

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 thats 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. Kuribayashis 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.

Casting Japanese Actors

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 wasnt familiar with a lot of the actors, so I looked at the films and auditions that they did, Eastwood says. Acting is acting. When its good, its good, even if you dont understand the language thats 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 Kuribayashis 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 Tokyos 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 whats right for him in this situation.

Throughout production, Kase put himself in his characters shoes. I had a very strong feeling that I didnt 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 Kuribayashis 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.

No Language Barrier

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 Saigos 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.