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Rewriting Someone Else’s History: The Japanese Reaction to “Letters from Iwo Jima”

Something about the scene with the dog made me first laugh, then shake my head. It wasn’t the Hollywood hokeyness; it was that the dog looked too well-fed.

I immediately recalled my mother's childhood memory that she tells over and over. During World War II, the American blockade led to food shortages in Japan, causing severe malnutrition for its citizens. By the end of the war, my mother, who was then twelve, weighed little over forty pounds. Her childhood pet was a rabbit; my grandmother had it killed to provide food for her family. My mother refused to touch it at first, but as hunger overcame her, she ate it, crying. Having a dog--let alone a horse--would have been an unimaginable luxury.

I was also taken aback by the pristine postcard images that were presented of the soldiers’ home towns. They were supposedly from cities that had been rendered rubble by American firebombs, which killed millions of civilians; they wiped out over half the civilian population in seventy cities. Certainly, squalor would have been more authentic.

Such seemingly minor inaccuracies add up to the trouble with"Letters from Iwo Jima." I don’t deny its potential importance in the context of current US foreign policy, which is overwhelmingly seen by the rest of the world as not constructive (according to a recent BBC survey), nor do I wish to detract from its cinematographic merits. Nonetheless, as a movie widely touted as showing the"Japanese point of view," the film poses the thorny issue of rewriting someone else’s history.

World War II remains a subject largely avoided by Japanese films. It has simply cut too close; practically all Japanese alive then lost someone in the battles or the firebombs. Most post-war Japanese films deal with the difficulties of life in that chaotic time, alluding to the war only through referring to loved ones who did not return. But today, the bulk of the Japanese movie-going public are in their twenties, with no experience with the war, either directly or through their parents. Such conditions have left the field open to Mr. Eastwood’s film.

As of February 4,"Letters from Iwo Jima" had taken in only $7.5 million at the US box office; it ranked no. 16. In contrast, in Japan—the world’s second-largest film market--the movie ranked no.1 at the box office for five weeks, dropping to no. 3 on its sixth week. The popularity of the film is attributable not only to admiration for Eastwood and lead actor Ken Watanabe, but also for Kazunari Ninomiya, who is a member of the pop group Arashi. The film has sparked discussion in forums such as the Yahoo Japan movie bulletin boards, where it has received nearly 1,700 user reviews. (This contrasts with about 180 reviews on the primarily American Yahoo.com bulletin board.)

Generally speaking, Japanese users have appreciated the film for its anti-war message, its sentimental story, and its"surprisingly sympathetic stance for an American director." Nonetheless, an articulate minority have taken issue with the historical inaccuracies of the film. Several commented that all the scenes looked"too clean—those battles, let alone our cities, were far more wretched." Some reviewers commented that Kuribayashi’s assertion that there was"no support" was not accurate, as kamikazes (suicide pilots) had sunk several American warships, and that these kamikazes should have been shown. Several commented about the unnaturalness of the characters’ behavior and dialogue ("Would a low-ranking soldier like Saigo have used such rough language, in that era?") Another pointed out,"All the mistakes in the customs of the period bothered us. Shoji screens were never used for the front door—how can you knock on paper? And young people had been wearing Western clothing, not kimonos, since the 1930s."

The greatest concern is that the film fails to explain why the Japanese felt the need to defend a seemingly insignificant island so fervently – the fear that the firebombing of Japanese cities, already devastating to civilians, would intensify were the Americans to gain Iwo Jima as a launching pad for air strikes. In not explaining this background, viewers felt that the film catered to the stereotype of the Japanese as lemming-like fanatics. Several viewers objected to the episodes involving conservative military officers—"no Japanese military officer would have cut off the head of an underling like that, nor would one have used a firearm in a residential area." In their minds, the movie was another example of the West’s exoticizing Japan as a land of odd behavior.

Many viewers raised objections that"good" was being equated with being America-friendly. As one user stated,"Only officers who had been to the US are depicted as rational and smart, while all other Japanese officers are evil and barbaric, as per the American stereotype." Another wrote,"Other than the America-enlightened officers, Japanese officers are shown flailing their swords and guns around like fools. . . The impression the film wants to leave at the end is that America is superior." Many dismissed the scene where the American soldier’s letter is read as unrealistic and mawkish ("Why would any officer seek to de-galvanize his troops?"). Others found the segments depicting Kuribayashi’s time in the United States to be long and gratuitous ("How does this advance the plot?"), while his poignant letters to his family from Iwo Jima, which have been published, hardly received a mention.

These viewers expressed concern that young people in Japan may take the film at face value as their primary impression of the Japanese in World War II, which remains an avoided subject in Japanese education. As one viewer commented,"I wish the Japanese would make a film that will tell the real Japanese side of the story in World War II. But the leftists would pelt it as being ‘hawkish’ and ‘neo-nationalistic.’" As far as potential shaping of opinion in the United States is concerned, I believe that the film could have achieved far more by raising awareness of the devastation caused by American firebombing (let alone the atomic bombs)--a subject not generally mentioned in American schools.

Of course,"Letters" is not the only Oscar-nominated film fictionalizing someone else’s history. What victims of Idi Amin make of the British film"The Last King of Scotland" or Africans think of"Blood Diamonds" is something on which I have no personal experience to comment. Nonetheless, whatever the artistic merits of the film, creators and marketers of popular culture should be more wary of extending Western imperialism, as perceived by the world’s citizens, into the cultural sphere.