Interview : The Cast and Crew of Letters from Iwo Jima


Including Clint Eastwood and Ken Watanabe

Clint Eastwood did not set out two make two films when he began his work preparing to make ‘Flags of Our Fathers’. But as his research took him deeper and deeper into the story behind one of the largest and most devastating battles in modern history –Iwo Jima – he felt a strong and persistent presence in everything he read. “You start analyzing one story, where the Americans were invading the island, and you realize that they didn’t know why everybody was there,” Eastwood reflects. “They didn’t know why the Japanese were able to withstand such tremendous bombardment from the Navy and the Naval Air Corps. It was fascinating to me. I wondered who the tactician was on the other side, what their feelings were and what their mentality was. Americans were sent into the South Pacific hoping that they were going to survive; knowing it was going to be tough but hoping that they were going to come back. In the case of the Japanese, they were told they weren’t coming back.”

His research into the Japanese side of the battle brought him inexorably to the man behind the resourceful and unusual Japanese strategies on Iwo Jima: Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. “He was a very unique general, not typical in the traditional Japan of his time,” says Academy Award nominee Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai). He was very smart and rational, and had lived in America. He studied in Harvard and drove all around the country in 1928. So, he had a good feeling about Americans, and he understood the industry and economy of their country; but he had to fight against the United States. He was in charge of his men and had a whole nation behind him, though he did not agree on how he was told to do it. The problem is that he didn’t have enough soldiers, weapons or food to accomplish his mission, which was really tough for him.”

He was also curious about the infantrymen who built and manned these labyrinthine tunnels. “Most of them were just young boys,” Eastwood describes. “On both sides, they were just young men with their lives interrupted. They were taken away from their homes, and asked to go away and possibly never return – a great probability, in some cases. From the Japanese point of view, 21,000 people perished there. That’s an important figure. These people not only perished by the enemy, but their enemy was starvation and thirst and dehydration. And yet they stayed, and they did it. I’m sure they would have probably rather have been comfortable at home. But that doesn’t happen in war time.”

Eastwood visited the stark island itself twice – first to obtain the blessing of the Japanese government and again to shoot segments for the film. “It’s a tough place,” he describes. “You see holes in the ground and the caves where the Japanese built 18 miles of tunnels in a year. That’s where they resided, underground. You crawl down into tunnels that are very high. They’re very claustrophobic until you get inside. It becomes a cavern-like room, hot from the geothermal activity.”

The spirit of the island where so many fought and died – which now houses only a military base and a memorial – deeply affected the director. “You’ll see a bottle of whiskey sitting there with a cap off but it’s full,” he remembers. “Now, in a lot of areas they’d say, ‘Hey, that’s full; well, I’m going to empty that.’ But not there. The bottle of whiskey’s been put there for the spirit of the people who died there. It’s thought of as a very sacred area.”
To Eastwood’s surprise, information about the battle was not generally known in contemporary Japan, a sentiment echoed by the film’s Kazunari Ninomiya, who plays Private Saigo. “I knew the name of the island, and that’s all,” he says. “I realized this film is history. It took 61 years for that history to be revealed to the public. I want all the people, Japanese, American or any other nationality, to see this film.”

Like all the core cast members, Shidou Nakamura, who plays Lieutenant Ito in the film, sought to learn more about the battle and the men who fought it. “We’re a generation that doesn’t know the war, so I did a lot of research,” he says. “Through the film I was able to become more aware of war. The battle was originally thought to end in five days but it just kept going. As I researched the materials, I found how intense and fierce the fighting was. I think it must have been terribly frightening. I hope the young generation that doesn’t know about the war will recognize the facts and take hints from it for the future. ”

Ken Watanabe also sought to learn more. “I did a lot of research about the war and my character,” he explains. “I even went to Kuribayashi’s home town, in the center of Japan, but nobody knew him.”

After his research into the battle itself as well as the man, the experience of traveling to Iwo Jima was an emotional one for Watanabe. “I went with Clint, who shot the beach, a town and Mount Suribachi,” he recalls. “I am sure he would have liked to shoot more there, but it wasn’t possible. In fact, most of the movie was made in Southern California. When I saw Iwo Jima from the cockpit of the plane I couldn’t stop crying, because I felt that the souls of all those soldiers still remained on the island.”

Sets where Eastwood was to shoot the cave sequences were built on a soundstage at Warner Bros., and the Japanese cast assembled in full for the first time. Despite the language barrier, director and cast soon formed a close working bond through the script itself, which had been written in English by Iris Yamashita and then translated into Japanese. “As the script was written in English I helped chose the right translators, because the movie would be shot in Japanese, and checked on their work,” says Watanabe. “It was a great experience for me to collaborate side by side with Clint, and I gave him notes every day.”

Though he did not speak their native language, Eastwood appreciated the opportunity to direct this cast. “Good acting is good acting in any language,” he enthuses. “It isn’t just the words that come forward that make everything work, it’s the actual emotion, what’s in the heart and what’s in the soul of the actors as they’re portraying their characters. And you can tell that; you don’t have to really know the language.”

“At first, I was a little intimidated being in my first American film with Mr. Eastwood as director,” comments Shidou Nakamura, “but he would always talk to us like a fellow actor so I felt very relaxed.”

Eastwood had interpreters to communicate some of the subtleties of his direction, and also had Watanabe to bounce ideas off of. Mostly, because he knew that everyone in the company shared a purpose in making the film, he set to put the cast at ease and allow their honest emotion to come through. “I try to get that feeling that everything is said for the first time,” he says. “All the actors are striving for that. They’re striving to deliver the lines like they’ve never been delivered. They just came to their thought process, and there they are. And so naturally, the acting technique allows you to do it over and over again, but I try to get the inspiration very early, and try to make actors feel like they’re comfortable. And that’s about all a director can do, is make them feel really comfortable.”
The emotions of the story became very real not only for the actors but for the crew standing by on the stage. “The American crew was crying while watching our acting,” recalls Nakamura, “and sometimes, when I was getting ready, the make-up ladies would rush in to tell me that a certain scene was being shot and it was so wonderful. Since the lines are in Japanese, they probably didn’t understand the scene 100% but there were moments when the scenes transcended language. I felt strongly that there were no barriers.”

Watanabe’s also helped bridge the gap for the young actors working with an American director of Eastwood’s stature for the first time. “To be honest, I thought maybe Ken was going to be more frightening than Clint, but he was really like a father,” says Ninomiya. “He made it so comfortable for me. With the story being what it is, we were all very serious, but it felt like we were camping together with Ken as a father. Clint Eastwood creates that kind of atmosphere.”

“Ken-san is someone who likes to take care of everyone,” adds Nakamura. “It’s our first time to experience an American film so he gave us advice. On our days off, he would invite us to his house and serve us his home-made Japanese cooking. We talked about acting and because he’s had experience working in America, he gave us some good advice. I really look up to him.”

For everyone in the production, from Eastwood himself to the cast and crew, the prevailing goal was to pay tribute to the men who fought and died on the island. “It was a very important for me, and I’m sure for the other gentlemen as well, that this history be told, and that’s the tribute we pay to all of the lives that were lost in that campaign on both sides of the war – that those people are well-remembered,” he reflects. “I think the most telling line in the picture is in the final address to his men. General Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe, says, ‘In years to come, people will think of you and pray for your souls.’ And I think that it certainly moved me when he did that. To forget people that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country would be a crime. That’s what this whole story was about, really, is to call attention to these men. And the great futility of war is explored in this picture – for me, anyway. There’s no real winning. It just always sacrificed the youth; it’s always the young people who have their lives interrupted and terminated at an early time. And that’s important to remember.”