Follow TV Tropes


Film / Letters from Iwo Jima

Go To

Letters from Iwo Jima is the 2006 P.O.V. Sequel to Flags of Our Fathers, which was also directed by Clint Eastwood, providing a Perspective Flip to Imperial Japan, the antagonists of the first film.

Inspired by the book Picture Letters from the Commander and Chief, a compilation of whimsically illustrated letters sent by the Japanese commander of the Iwo Jima garrison to his family, the film explores the back stories of some of Iwo Jima's doomed defenders (fewer than 1% would ultimately survive) in the form of their last letters home — letters written but never sent.

Despite being an American production, the film is almost entirely in Japanese. Characters include Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the commander of the island and a decent man who doodles drawings on letters home to his wife and family; Saigo, a Mildly Military private who only wants to go home to his wife and family, and Shimizu, a new arrival to Saigo's squad who Saigo suspects of being a spy for State Sec.

This film provides examples of:

  • An Aesop: War is bad, and the other side is human as well.note  This is shown when they read a captured Marine's letter from his mother.
  • Animals Hate Him: A dog incessantly barks at Shimizu's superior because it either doesn't like his smell or senses an aura of wicked evil coming from him. It doesn't end well for the dog.
  • Bayonet Ya: A horrifying example done to the captured Marine.
  • Berserk Button: Saigo spends the entire film making clear he just wants to live and go back to his wife and child, but after burying Kuribayashi and being found by a group of Marines, he flips out and tries to strike a Marine with his shovel when he sees said Marine has Kuribayashi's M1911 on his belt.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: The "honourable" way of doing things according to the Empire, which includes ordering the entire battalion to go on a hopeless suicide mission. Many soldiers are clearly unhappy about this. Not that it stops them.
  • Bling-Bling-BANG!: General Kuribayashi's special M1911 sports an ivory grip with gold-leaf stars branded inside.
  • Body Horror: One man dies sitting upright with half his face gone during an air raid. There are also various limbs lost during the battle itself, people attacked with flamethrowers, blown up at point blank range...
  • Chekhov's Gun: You didn't really think the M1911 Kuribayashi was gifted would show up that much and not get used, did you? On himself, that is.
  • Cold Sniper: One Marine sniper appears at the end of the film, and kills Lt. Fujita before he can Mercy Kill Gen. Kuribayashi.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Kuribayashi withdraws his men from the beaches to fight from caves and tunnels rather then wasting them in the pointless (but honorable) suicide attacks his subordinates would prefer. Saigo also holds little truck with "honorable suicide" for various reasons and prefers unconventional tactics (compared to IJA standards) in the field. Needness to say, this doesn't make him too popular with some of his fellow soldiers.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The torture of a captured Marine is a reference to Iggy's death in Flags of Our Fathers.
    • Similarly, the scene in Flags where Doc sees an unseen horror in a cave runs on from a scene in Letters where some Japanese soldiers commit seppuku with hand grenades.
    • The flamethrower operator from Flags of Our Fathers is shown clearing out the same pillboxes he did in the first film.
  • Cue the Sun: At the end of the battle the sun dawns over the sea.
  • The Dreaded Toilet Duty: Saigo is chosen by his commander to dump out the "poop pail" that his squad has been using while hunkered in their bunkers on the island. The commander urges Saigo not to lose the pail, "or you will carry out our poop with your hands." As Saigo emerges from the bunker, he sees the enormous American fleet poised to invade, and drops the pail in astonishment. Poor Saigo then has to fish the pail out of a ditch as the naval shelling starts.
  • Driven to Suicide: Colonel Adachi knows the section his troops are defending will not be held, and requests Kuribayashi to let them commit suicide for the failure. Kuribayashi tells him to move over to his location, but Adachi disobeys and orders his troops to commit suicide regardless. Only Saigo, Shimizu (convinced by Saigo that their general ordered them to not do this anyway) and a few others leave from Mount Suribachi alive.
    • Kuribayashi, injured as the battle reaches its end, kills himself with his M1911. Granted, he tried a slightly different method, but his adjutant Fujita was shot dead while trying to do so.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Everyone except Saigo and possibly Lieutenant Ito dies.
  • Fatal Family Photo: One soldier often seen looking at his family photographs later commits suicide with a grenade, splashing them with blood.
  • A Father to His Men: General "I will always be right in front of you" Kuribayashi.
  • Foregone Conclusion: We already know how the Battle of Iwo Jima ends. Their orders were not to win... only to kill ten Americans apiece before they themselves were killed.
  • Honor Before Reason: The Japanese forces (or at least a large amount of them) would rather engage in futile and suicidal attacks because they deem it to be more honorable than fighting smart, something that frustrates Kuribayashi to no end. Worse than that, many of them don't even bother fighting after a certain point, they just shoot themselves in the face or blow themselves up with grenades.
  • Hopeless War: You realize the full extent of how hopeless it is for the Japanese when the film shows the American fleet: hundreds of ships (including various battleships and carriers), transporting marines in overwhelming numbers and all the air and artillery support they need. This comes after one of the characters estimates the ships coming as "30, 50 at the most", and once he leaves the cave and sees them for himself, he is dumbfounded.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: When Saigo is ordered to defend a destroyed machine gun emplacement with his rifle, he responds by cocking it in his commanding officer's direction. The officer quickly rethinks the order.
  • Irony: Ito seems to be insistent on dying in battle, and leaves everyone else to hope to destroy a tank by lying in wait with mines attached to him. He later grows tired of waiting when nothing comes by and heads back to the (emptied) caves, and is last seen in the film being found by a group of Marines...making him the only other implied survivor in the movie.
  • Justified Title: The film ends with archeologists having dug up the letters from the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima that Saigo hid in a bag in the ground after burning the other documents and Kuribayashi's military chest.
  • Just Like Us: Shimizu and the others discover this after they talk with a captured American soldier and read a letter from his mother.
  • Katanas Are Just Better: Mostly defied; the officers carry katana (specifically Shin guntō) as part of their uniforms, but the gun and boat battles prevent any real use. Their mystique is still alluded to when an American admires one blade after confiscating it from Fujita's corpse.
  • Kick the Dog: Shimizu's superior accuses a harmless family dog of being a potential disturbance to Army Communications and orders him to put it to death. He goes back and does the job himself after Shimizu fakes the execution.
  • Kill It with Fire: Marine flamethrower operators are shown clearing Japanese fortifications, and the result is not pretty.
  • Last Stand: A given. Their only options were; die fighting; commit suicide; or be executed for treason.
  • The MacGuffin: the bag of letters written by Japanese soldiers on the island found by modern day archeologists in a cave. They were originally hidden by Saigo just before the end of the movie.
  • Meaningful Name: Saigo's name can mean "last", as in the last one left alive.
    • The captured American soldier whose wounds they treat is called Sam.
  • Mercy Kill: Kuribayashi is injured and orders his adjutant Fujita to behead him. Unfortunately for them both, Fujita is shot by a Marine as he stands and raises his sword.
  • Minion with an F in Evil: Shimizu just couldn't shoot the dog.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Kuribayashi (and the American general), in a scene at a dinner in the US.
    Kuribayashi: "I would have to follow my convictions."
    American friend: "You mean your convictions or your country's convictions?"
    Kuribayashi: "Are they not the same?"
    American friend: (smiles, nods) "Spoken like a true soldier"
    American wife: "Oh that's awful, Bernie, it means that you're dead."
  • My Girl Back Home: Mostly Saigo's young wife Hanako, whom he writes to, and is shown begging him not to leave. They also have a baby daughter he's never met.
  • The Neidermeyer: Lieutenant Ito, who is pretty much incompetent in doing anything outside of having soldiers executed, be it having a number of his men killed in a pointless counterattack or getting more men killed trying to cross a small ravine.
    • Captain Tanida embodies this trope even more. In every one of his scenes, he is depicted brutally bullying the soldiers under his command in some form or another. In particular, he seems to enjoy making Pvt. Saigo's life a living hell. Hell, in his final act alive, he orders his troops to commit suicide. There's a guy you want to work for!
  • Non-Action Guy: Saigo can't even handle a rifle properly, and the only reason he survives is because he's smart/cowardly enough to hang back from wherever there's violence. Kuribayashi mistakes his survival instincts for fighting skills and is corrected. Kuribayashi later takes advantage of Saigo's survival instincts by entrusting him with the bag of letters.
    • Saigo isn't even all that threatening when he gets enraged from seeing a Marine have Kuribayashi's M1911 and kinda has the jump on said soldier to strike him with his shovel. He swings futilely at the man repeatedly and never hits him! (granted, he was certainly suffering from lack of food and water)
  • Oh, Crap!: Saigo is sent outside to empty the latrine bucket and discovers the ocean is literally covered with American warships from horizon to horizon—just in time for the opening gun of one of the largest naval bombardments in history.
  • Perspective Flip: After Flags of Our Fathers covered this battle from the American perspective, this film covers it from the Japanese perspective.
  • Pet the Dog: Shimizu is mostly very quiet, feared to be from the Kempeitai and showed the possibility he'd shoot Saigo for not committing suicide like the other soldiers in his troop (he is convinced otherwise and doesn't go through with it). After Saigo tells him he's going to surrender and dares him to arrest him, he tells him he was actually discharged from the Kempeitai: he pretended to shoot a family's dog his superior ordered him to, but the dog barked while they were leaving and accidentally tipped off his superior who then had him discharged for insubordination.
    • The American Lieutenant who's part of the squad who captures Saigo. Even as Saigo goes berserk and begins swinging wildly at the squad with his shovel, the Lieutenant refuses to allow the squad to shoot him, and instead continues to try to calm him down until a private manages to incapacitate him.
  • P.O.V. Sequel
  • The Promise: Saigo promises his unborn baby that he will return home alive. He apparently keeps it.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Baron Nishi represents the noble side of the Japanese warrior tradition in direct contrast to Lt. Ito.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Saigo, who is specifically shown to be a unwilling draftee. He's also never shown actually fighting against the Americans, perhaps to ensure he retains the target audience's sympathy
  • Robbing the Dead: The Americans take Kiribayashi's M1911 and Fujita's katana after they die.
  • Right Hand Versus Left Hand: The Japanese Navy officers clearly resent working with Army General Kuribayashi right from the start - they weren't even letting the Army troops in on the defensive plan. As the battle actually happens, Navy Lieutenant Ito does it more openly by having troops make a (clearly futile) attack instead of continuing to fight from the caves at Kuribayashi's orders.
  • Shoot the Dog: A literal example.
    • Nishi's horse Jupiter to some extent.
  • Shoot the Medic First: Lt. Ito shows tells his men to target medics because enemy soldiers will sacrifice themselves to save them.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Leaning a fair bit more to the cynical side.
  • State Sec: The Kempeitai.
  • Storming the Beaches: The US Marines do this at the start of the invasion, naturally. Thanks to the island's underground defenses, they suffer heavy casualties trying to move further inland. Eventually, they manage to wipe out the Japanese defenders stationed near the beaches.
  • Surrender Backfire: The soldiers who surrender to an American patrol are summarily shot instead of being taken prisoner. The discovery of their bodies reinforces the belief that surrender is not an option and that suicidal attacks are preferable to capture.
  • Taking You with Me: The entire point of the battle. The Americans are going to win and the Japanese defenders know it, so the only thing left is to sell their lives at as high a cost as possible.note 
  • Tempting Fate: From the trailer, and the flashback scene of Kuribayashi at a dinner in the US before the war.
"How would you feel if America and Japan went to war?"
"The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight."
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: The pre-invasion bombardment. By one reckoning the US expended more than 26 tons of munitions for every Japanese soldier on the island over the course of the battle, from 16 inch down to .45 ACP. A rare example of the protagonist on the receiving end.
  • Tragic Hero: Kuribayashi, both in the movie and in real life. Sent to Iwo Jima because of his "soft" attitudes, suspected American sympathies and advocacy of "defeatist" defensive tactics, Kuribayashi inspired his men to use those defensive tactics to inflict more casualties on his American friends than any other Japanese general. His American opponent General Howland M. "Howling Mad" Smith called him "The most redoubtable foe" while to the common soldier he was the "Best damn general on this stinking island" and "Let's hope the Japs don't have any more like him."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Several incidents, such as Lt. Ito's poignantly pathetic anti-tank strategy, are taken straight from the pages of history. Others, such as the blinding of Lt. Colonel Nishi, were rumored but could never be confirmed. No one knows what really happened to General Kuribayashi as no surviving witnesses ever came forward, but the official story is he died on his feet while disguised as a common infantryman.
  • War Is Hell: And this is the Ninth Circle.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The movie faithfully portrays the endemic Interservice Rivalry between the Imperial Army and Navy, as well as the indiscipline and anarchic gekokujō dynamic of the Army as a whole. Despite Kuribayashi's orders, various junior officers either succumb to despair or decide to go out in a blaze of glory, taking their men on pointless suicide missions that ultimately do little to slow down the American advance.