Ken Watanabe stars as Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi in "Letters from Iwo Jima," directed by Clint Eastwood. CLICK FOR LARGE
No room for sentiment
Actor Ken Watanabe relishes the realism of "Letters from Iwo Jima"
THE BATTLE for Iwo Jima was one of the last, desperate contests of the Second World War, in which Japanese defenders held a Japanese island far longer than expected and inflicted the war's worst casualty ratio on the Allied attackers. The irony is that the battle is largely unknown in Japan.
The American equivalent is the legendary battle for the Alamo, a fight ingrained on the grade-school education of every American, and yet the average Japanese might know only that Iwo Jima's defenders lost their fight. So did the defenders of the Alamo. That's not the point. They fought bravely and well.
And both sides committed young men into carnage and death, both sure the struggle was worth the sacrifice.
"I think most Japanese people will now know of this tragedy," says actor Ken Watanabe, who appears in the new movie "Letters from Iwo Jima" in the key role of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commander of the doomed Imperial garrison. "Clint and I didn't want to show the heroes in this movie. Nobody is the hero, so we always bring the tragedy. Just tragedy."
Ken Watanabe appears as Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi in "Letters from Iwo Jima." CLICK FOR LARGE
"Clint" as in Eastwood, director of both this film and "Flags of Our Fathers," which shows the American side of the battle. Eastwood was able to amortize the cost of doing what is essentially an art-house film -- "Letters" is entirely in Japanese, with limited distribution in the United States -- under the wing of the larger "Flags." Both movies look rather the same, with washed-out cinematography, bone-crunching sound, busy, busy effects (when needed) and a certain bleakness of visual composition, and the two make bookends. But there's no overlap between them.
The film opens in select cities tomorrow in order to make Oscar buzz, but won't reach Honolulu until next month. Watanabe spoke by phone as he promoted the film in New York.
The first order of business: How do you portray someone who's a military legend and yet virtually unknown?
"Unfortunately all of the people he'd known were dead," said Watanabe, occasionally using a translator. "I met his grandson but he doesn't know Kuribayashi, he never got to talk to him. In Japan we don't have enough survivors who really know the story of this island, and so we had to research about it from Kuribayashi's letters or historical reports for the battle and his autobiography. I mean, his biography!
"There was actually a lot written about what he had been like before he went to Iwo Jima. I made notes, which I sent to Clint and (screenwriter) Iris Yamashita before shooting."
One reason the general became a legend is that nobody knows what happened to him.
"Nobody knows about his end. I imagine he wanted to erase any evidence he was a general. Before the final charge, he took off his rank and his cap. His final request was to bury any proof or evidence that he had been there."
Another legendary Imperial commander on Iwo Jima was Baron Nishi, who had won a gold medal in equestrian events in the Los Angeles Olympics. Did any trace of the Baron turn up?
"Somebody found his boots. They were very special riding boots he took with him. A cemetery holds onto his boots in Japan."
How about getting into the mind-set of an Imperial Army general?
"It's very difficult understanding traditional soldiers in (modern) Japan. I couldn't imagine the suicides or the fights to the end. Also, the generals and the officers live in a different world than the privates that they commanded. The movie is a lot about that."
"If a Japanese director made this film, it'd be a little more sentimental. Because Clint (Eastwood) was the director, and directing with American style, it's a much more objective film."
Actor, shown with Eastwood on the set of "Letters from Iwo Jima."
Including the specialized military language used by Imperial commanders?
"Yeah! I tried to use very authentic, traditional words. Depending on each of the roles, we have totally different kind of words -- rank and age and backgrounds. We had to search about each character to make a dialogue."
"Flags" was largely shot in Iceland. Was "Letters"?
"No shooting in Iceland for us ... Southern California, mostly. On the real Iwo Jima, we filmed only one day because Clint didn't get a permit to shoot there. There still remains unexploded shells and ammo on the island. Dangerous."
THE BATTLE for Iwo Jima is not at all familiar in Japan, Watanabe said. Even he knew little about the war in general. Perhaps because of that lack of knowledge, the film's reception in Japan has been "huge."
"When it opened, young-generation people came to the theater. That's a real good thing for us."
Is it a Japanese movie or an American movie, or do those distinctions matter?
"I feel it is a Japanese movie directed by American director. Clint also said at the Japanese premiere, 'Yes, I am now a Japanese director, too, but I cannot speak Japanese!'"
He added, "If a Japanese director made this film, it'd be a little more sentimental. Because Clint was the director, and directing with American style, it's a much more objective film. Also, my character is more multidimensional because Clint was directing."
The Japanese film industry wants the war portrayed with sentimentality?
"I think so. Yes, it's a funny thing. I know one producer, he wasn't happy with 'Iwo Jima.' When he saw it, he complained, 'I couldn't cry. What's with the movie? It doesn't make me cry.' He thought it was a good film, but it was not the kind of sentimental movie that set him up to cry."
Last year's "Yamato" was also about a huge sacrifice by Japanese servicemen at the end of the war, and it was very sentimental. It was also a big hit in Japan.
"Hmmm. There's an issue with Japan being directly unable to face its war past, so that tends to spill over into the movies they make about it. Sentimentality is not about being realistic."