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Return to Sender: Letters from Iwo

Though an improvement over the flashback heavy Flags of Our Fathers, I found Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima to be overly long, morally simplistic, and worst of all, saccharine. I'll still give Mr. Harry (or would he prefer just Dirty?) some credit: attempting to show individuality and humanity in soldiers when war strives to strip all involved of both is a herculean task. I think the film tries very hard to show the horrors of war and the perseverance of individuals, but ultimately, it fails to do so in a realistic or mature way. There is a scene that involves the shooting of a puppy for instance, and another where Japanese soldiers sit around and get teary-eyed about their family while reading a letter an American GI received from his mother. These cloying moments are certainly not earned by the narrative. I understand that some level of melodrama is necessary to convey the intangible to mass audiences, but I still think that by resorting to puppy-shooting and mommy-missing Clint and co are taking the easy road to emotional response. It's not very artful, and it reminds me of my least favorite part of the Two Towers during the battle of Helm's Deep (okay, 2nd only to the elf "extreme shield riding" down steps): the repeated shots of women and children huddled together in fear. Nothing like children and puppies in peril to tug on the old heartstrings. My inspiration for this post was actually not to put down Iwo, but to raise up two Japanese World War II films I've seen recently. Both are non-traditional war films (containing far less action than Flags or Iwo), and concern themselves with the effect of the war on individuals. In both cases they dispense with any attempt to "realistically" portray events in the war in favor of more stylized renderings of the horrors and psychological turbulence of war. And yet by attempting to remain more emotionally "honest" and morally ambiguous, both come off as more unique and even "realistic" than Letters from Iwo Jima. Director Yasuzo Masumura's Red Angel (1966) is set deep in the Manchurian front as the Japanese invaders are becoming more and more isolated from much needed supplies and reinforcements. Specifically it follows a young Japanese nurse on her odyssey into a hellish world of severed limbs, morphine addiction, and institutionalized rape. The film is reportedly based on several factual premises: that the Japanese medical supplies and abilities became stretched so thin that far into the front and so late into the invasion, that amputation became a common medical procedure to save lives. As if that's not horrifying enough, the amputees were not allowed to return home because the powers that be feared the sight of so many limbless men returning from the front would demoralize the Japanese civilian population (sounds eerily similar to the no casket photo rule in the US right?). Instead, the wounded and maimed were kept in large, gory hospital tents such as the ones where the protagonist nurse Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) of Red Angel earns her living. Nurse Nishi begins the film as idealistic and romantic, but is quickly confused and numbed by the horrors and atrocities inflicted upon her and others. The film purportedly sought to show the breakdown of human interactions in wartime. Nurse Nishi retreats inwards and sleepwalks through situations with a heightened need for physical love but a dangerously detached grip on reality. She eventually ends in a strange relationship with the equally conflicted chief surgeon, Dr. Okabe, who when not sawing off limbs is injecting morphine to escape reality. Perhaps overly grim and gory, Red Angel just barely keeps you empathizing with characters who by the end are so dehumanized and battered as to be hardly recognizably human at all. But I guess that's the point, and overall, it's a more artistically achieved and morally complex look at war than a movie made 40 years later. Red Angel is available on DVD on the Fantoma label, presented in gorgeously photographed black & white, Daieiscope (2.35:1). For rent at Scarecrow, located in the Japan section, though someday maybe we can give Yasuzo Masumura his own director section. Even more artfully achieved, and certainly more entertaining, than either of the previously mentioned Japanese War movies is Kon Ichikawa's 1959 Fires on the Plain (released yesterday on the Criterion DVD label). Full of absolutely stunning photography, haunting imagery, and most surprisingly, absurd humor, this is perhaps the most clear-headed take on the Pacific front that I've ever seen. Actually, that's doing the film disservice, though it comments specifically on the Japanese occupation of the Philippines towards the end of the war as the Americans begin to invade, it transcends specific time and place and becomes a universal observation of a man during war. It's like a 90-minute version of the crazy bridge scene in Apocalypse Now (the one in which Martin Sheen asks the soldiers who seem to be firing on an invisible enemy in the dark something like "Who's in charge here?" and the reply is "Aren't you?") Confusion, horror and endless marching and waiting occupy the time of private Tamura. The opening scene has his commanding officer berating him for returning to camp despite his Tuberculosis. He is ordered to return to the hospital that rejected him and demand to be accepted. In the event of failure, he is to kill himself with his grenade. On his journey from battlefield to encampment to battlefield he sees piles of bodies, hears stories of cannibalism amongst Japanese troops in New Guinea, is attacked by a mad dog, murders a civillian, and spends much time collecting and dispersing yams and salt. All of this is done with an unsettling detachment that limits his most obvious emotions to "frightened" and "hungry." I'm not sure there's any other way he could survive the horrors. This may sound overly bleak or cold, but Ichikawa masterfully works in humor and drama as to keep the viewer from being more than just repulsed and alienated. In fact, it's quite easy to empathize with Tamura who seems to wander from situation to situation reacting with a very human immediacy: he reacts with pure survival instinct. On top of that, the film's biggest strength is its incredible poetic imagery that captures the horror and inhumanity of war: a pair of sole-less boots sitting in mud, a severed hand in a claw-like splay lying in the brush, a man face down in a puddle, swarms of flies, bodies strewn about a hillside with the open sky above, and of course the titular fires on the plain. Fires on the Plain is available for rent right now in the New Release section, but eventually will land in Kon Ichikawa's director section.