How "Japanese" is it? | Bleader

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How "Japanese" is it?

Posted By on 01.23.07 at 09:38 PM

Apparently the consensus regarding Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima--more than 11,000 Google hits for the critical rubric so far--is that he's given us a picture of the island's World War II invasion "from the Japanese point of view." Well, maybe he has and maybe he hasn't--and don't you love the defining article in either case?--but let's consider this: is there any significant Japanese director of the last 50 years who'd have filled the wide-screen frame with so many in-your-face, isolating close-ups and acres of empty space, who'd have gotten such fetishistic mileage out of glimmering swords and pistols and heavy-duty armaments in general, who'd have thrown you helter-skelter, without the slightest reticence or discretion, the gimlet-eyed withholding that an Ozu or a Naruse might bring, into the welter of sentimentality that defines the melodramatic line of action here? Utterly alien to anything I'd think of as Japanese, at least in terms of filmmaking--but maybe that's just me being stereotypical again.

But "point of view" implies more than literal aspects of nationality, equally embracing what's being shown (or not shown) and how it's done and what you're intended to think and feel about it, through editing strategies, camera positioning and lens choices, etc. All of which, in the present case, seem recognizably "American" to me, or at least "Spielbergian," after Eastwood's coproducer, whose mark appears all over this film: aspiring at once to the epic and the mawkish, with the kind of lachrymose attentions to families past, present, and future we've come to expect from this director. The worst example here being, in terms of cultural misapprehension, the scene in which a Japanese officer reads the letter from an American mother to her captured (and now sadly deceased) GI son. Not much to it, actually, just quotidian musings of a parent worried over the fate of her military offspring. But contextually we, as all the soldiers listening, are supposed to be deeply moved: aren't "they"--meaning the infernal enemy--really just like ourselves, etc? Except the sign-off strikes an almost alien tone here: "Love, Mom"--a fatal relaxation of boundaries, of separateness and hierarchy. What kind of parent would address her soldierly grunt in this familiar way, just another example of vulgar American indiscipline! Which is a bit like reading a verse from "Little Lamb Who Made Thee" and expecting to find insight into "American" religious experience: their "godliness" so much like our own, just putting on the divine trousers one leg at a time ...

But, but--already I can sense the protests mounting--isn't family as big a deal for "the Japanese" as it is among ourselves? Well, presumably yes, though not in the same way and certainly not as a kind of fantasy ideal; arguably it's more a global positioning device, that situates the individual within an overarching framework of kinship and society, a system that obligates as well as connects. Which is what I've managed to pick up (or at least think I have) from countless viewings of Ozu et al: not a lot of Norman Rockwell moments there ...

Incidentally, at the almost packed screening I attended (on a Saturday afternoon no less!) my wife found herself seated next to a man who claimed to have been in the marine division that charged the Iwo Jima beachhead in '45. Wasn't like that, he insisted, at least in terms of island topography, not nearly as desolate and barren ... Well, there goes the best thing in the movie!: the austere sweep of beachfront, the hardscrabble grays and washed-out greens, with Suribachi inevitably hunkered in the background--a place for the minimalist imagination to take root and hold. And where better to play out a drama of ultimate futility than in this Ozymandias expanse, of implacable shores with alien-sounding names (at least from the yahoo invaders' point of view)? But we're not having any of that now, I guess ...

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