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Two new movies based on a bloody 1945 battle are stirring up memories and forcing both sides to re-examine their history
Sunday May 28, 2006
More than 60 years after it became one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Second World War, Iwo Jima’s tragic history retains the power to overwhelm.
As his plane prepared to land on the isolated Japanese island last month, the actor Ken Watanabe found he could not hold back the tears. Accompanying Watanabe, who shot to stardom playing a feudal warlord opposite Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, was another hard man of Hollywood whose time on Iwo Jima would lead to something of a professional epiphany.
When Clint Eastwood’s two films about Iwo Jima, one of the darkest periods of the Pacific War, reach cinemas this year, audiences could be excused for forgetting the man behind them was once the trigger-happy Dirty Harry.
The 75-year-old director has promised Flags Of Our Fathers and Red Sun, Black Sand will attempt to show for the first time the suffering of both sides during 36 days of fighting in early 1945 that turned the island into a flattened wasteland.
On a recent trip to Japan, Eastwood said his time on Iwo Jima had forced him to re-evaluate the one-dimensional portrayal of America’s former enemy in so many war films. ‘There were good guys on one side. Life isn’t like that,’ he said.
He describes Red Sun, shot in Japanese and with a largely Japanese cast, as his attempt to understand the country’s soldiers. ‘I think those soldiers deserve a certain amount of respect,’ he said. ‘I feel terrible for both sides in that war and in all wars. A lot of innocent people get sacrificed. It’s not about winning or losing, but mostly about the interrupted lives of young people. These men deserve to be seen, and heard from.’
Eastwood had to mount a diplomatic offensive before filming could begin. Tokyo’s ultra-conservative governor, Shintaro Ishihara, who administers the island, gave Eastwood permission to film only after he agreed he would ‘absolutely not’ trample on Japanese sensitivities.
Japanese Iwo Jima veterans who met Eastwood say they are confident the films will honour their fallen comrades. ‘I asked him to make a human drama, not a war film,’ said 83-year-old Kiyoshi Endo, of the Japanese Iwo Jima Veterans’ Association. ‘I wanted him to show how the soldiers felt when they were fighting and, having read the script, I think he has done that. Who won or lost is not the point.’
The US assault on Iwo Jima began on the morning of 19 February 1945. When fighting ended 36 days later, an estimated 7,000 US troops and more than 21,000 Japanese soldiers were dead. Fewer than 1,000 Japanese survived.
Koji Kitahara, 84, who served aboard a vessel protecting supply ships, said he hoped the film would capture the utter desperation of the Japanese troops. ‘I remember countless soldiers in smaller boats coming out to my ship and begging us for food and water,’ he said. ‘All I could give them were a few cigarettes and some sweet bean jelly I had on me. I was haunted by their appearance and certain that they would die soon.’
While Eastwood promises to avoid the jingoism of John Wayne’s 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima, the first of his two films, Flags Of Our Fathers, promises to be more palatable to American audiences. Based on the 2000 bestselling book of the same name, it focuses on the six US soldiers captured in AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic and controversial photograph, as they raised the Stars and Stripes at the summit of Mt Suribachi.
But if Iwo Jima was one of the US marines’ hardest-won victories, it came at a price: nearly a third of all marines killed in the war died on the island.
These days Iwo Jima, 700 miles south of Tokyo, is populated by only a few hundred Japanese soldiers, the families of the dead having successfully lobbied against building on what they regard as sacred ground. For veterans like Kitahara, Red Sun’s release in December promises to evoke painful memories. For younger Japanese, it will be their first exposure to one of the bloodiest episodes in their country’s modern history.
Just as it was for Watanabe. ‘As we went through this film, we realised that until now we haven’t really looked at Japan’s past. We kind of looked away from it,’ he said. ‘But we have to look at it and accept the fact that this is what our fathers and grandfathers have done. Accepting the reality is the first step.’
Justin McCurry – The Guardian
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