Writing ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ 

Life is imitating art in a spooky way. Last year, Iris Yamashita wrote the script for Clint Eastwood’s "Letters from Iwo Jima." In the movie, the opening and closing sequences focus on a bag of letters dug up from the blood-soaked battlefield on the Pacific island; these messages from the soldiers to back home in Japan form most of the narration throughout the film.

When Yamashita was nominated for an Academy Award last month, I talked to her, about a year after she completed the script. I asked about the Oscar category (Original Screenplay) because watching "Letters from Iwo Jima," I thought the story was virtually a documentary.

No, Yamashita said, there was no bag of letters, nothing she knew of. Her script was based on material from other sources, a great deal of it original to her. And then, hours after our conversation, Yamashita — amazed and excited — sent an e-mail with an Associated Press story just published that very day in Japan.

An 80-year-old veteran of Iwo Jima from Gardiner, N.Y., having heard about Eastwood’s film, decided to pass on, yes, a satchel of letters and postcards he had found on the battlefield. "I just sat on this thing for 62 years," he said, but now he realized its importance, and asked to have the correspondence translated and returned to Japan "to bring a little peace and quiet to the world."

This extraordinary coincidence is well in tune with the many highly unusual aspects of Eastwood’s work. The very idea of an iconic American filmmaker telling the Japanese side of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific (in Japanese, no less) is nothing short of dumbfounding.

The fact that Eastwood not only tried to do the impossible, but succeeded superbly is even more astonishing. And, consider

Eastwood’s choice for a writer to provide the Japanese-language script — surely, an experienced, established Japanese writer of renown.

Not exactly. Yamashita was born in Missouri, began her education in Hawaii (including a stint at Punahou School, but no, she hadn’t met the decade-older Barack Obama there), has lived in Los Angeles and worked until the "Letters" assignment as a Webmaster. (Yamashita’s mother was a small child in Japan during World War II; her family’s house burned down in the Tokyo fire raids, just around the time of the battle on Iwo Jima.)

How many films has she worked on? None. And yet, Yamashita’s mysterious selection by Eastwood and executive producer Paul Haggis returned solid gold, contributing to the film’s success in a major way. Haggis — a double Oscar nominee, for directing "Crash" and writing the script for Eastwood’s "Million Dollar Baby" — entrusted the script’s development and execution to Yamashita.

Writing in English, to be translated to Japanese, Yamashita pulled together some existing material, but created most of the script on her own. Sources included letters written by the Japanese commander on the island, Gen. Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe, who surely should have been up for an Oscar), but before the war.

Ironically, the Japanese commander was an admirer of America, spent time in the U.S., and he sent letters to his family, including drawings for his young children, published after the war as "Picture Letters from Commander in Chief."

Yamashita shared Haggis’ and Eastwood’s interest in dealing with the idea of heroism in the two different cultures: "In America, the hero is the one who survives; in Japan, if you survive, you’re a coward." Rather than a "typical war movie, in which the hero guns down the enemy," this film gets deep inside the reality of war and warriors.

Yamashita’s previous writing experience includes articles for the ANA inflight magazine Winds, and a 2002 screenplay, "Traveler in Tokyo," which won a competition — and with her newfound fame, she just may turn that script into a movie. It is about a British professor teaching English literature in Japan in the 1930s, a "Japanese ‘Dead Poets Society’ sort of story."

About The Author

Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
Pin It

Speaking of Entertainment

More by Staff Report

Latest in Other Arts

© 2019 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation