by Andrea Grunert

Kikyō (Kikyo – The Return, 2019, a television film) is a film about the homecoming of an old gambler, Unokichi, called “Funeral Uno” and played by Nakadai Tatsuya. It is Nakadai’s third collaboration with director Sugita Shigemichi, the two others being Yūshun (1988) and Hatashiai (A Duel Tale, 2015, a television film). Kikyō is a jidai-geki set in the yakuza milieu in a provincial town in the first half of the 19th century. The rather slow pace is appropriate to the film’s contemplative narrative of an inner journey, which is supported by carefully framed landscape shots, beautifully lit interiors and close-ups of faces that reveal a wide range of human emotions. Frequent shots of the moon or of the mountains connect the world of human being with nature and with its aura of majesty and eternity. This spiritual dimension of the film is also conveyed in the gentle piano music composed by Kako Takashi.

Kikyō is a film about death as well as about life and how a man can live a decent life. In the first shots, an old man is spitting blood. Addressing the reflection of his face in a receptacle filled with water, he says: “Funeral Uno is dying. You are dying.” This aging yakuza has returned to his hometown Kiso-Fukushima (1), where he learns that he has a daughter, born a few months after his departure thirty years ago. Flashbacks to Unokichi’s painful past, which continues to haunt him, interrupt the linearity of the narrative. Memory is reconstructed in fragments and only gradually reveals the old man’s trauma. In a recurrent nightmare he relives a night in a dilapidated temple where he and his mistress had once found shelter. Every time he awakes from this horrible dream, his hands are outstretched, and the significance of this gesture does not become clear until the end of a series of flashbacks that reconstruct little by little what happened in the temple that night. A different flashback reveals that Unokichi and the woman ran away together after Unokichi had killed her enraged husband – a friend of his – in a fight that ensued when the friend discovered his wife’s adulterous relationship.

There are several fight sequences in the film, showing that Nakadai – born in 1932 – is still in great physical shape. The gush of blood in the scene when the boss (Nakamura Atsuo) of the Kyuzo family is killed creates an intertextual link in Nakadai’s acting career. It has been a standard feature of jidai-geki and chanbara since Kurosawa Akira’s Tsubaki Sanjurō (Sanjuro, 1962), in which blood spurts from Hanbei’s (Nakadai’s) breast in his final duel with Sanjurō (Mifune Toshirō).

Unokichi’s confrontation with his past is also a confrontation with the present, in which the past still lingers. He learns that Oaki, the woman he had wanted to marry, died heartbroken many years ago. Obeying the orders of his clan, Unokichi went to Edo (today’s Tokyo) as a young man, but instead of returning home after three years as planned, he became a drifter after he had killed his mistress’s husband. Thirty years later, the discovery that he has a daughter – Okuni (Tokiwa Takako) – brings back a wave of memories. Kikyō portrays the difficult relationship between a man and his daughter who has grown up with hatred for her absent father. In a long sequence, Okuni vents her anger and her despair, but finally she takes on the task of caring for the old man.

The topic of the dysfunctional family is also central in other films in which Nakadai has been cast during the last decade – Haru to no tabi (Haru’s Journey, 2010), Hatashiai and Umibe no Ria (Lear at the Shore, 2017). Kobayashi Masahiro, who directed two of these (Haru to no tabi and Umibe no Ria), wrote the script for the third (the jidai-geki Hatashiai) and is also the co-scriptwriter of Kikyō. In Haru to no tabi, Hatashiai and Kikyō, all connected by the motif of a journey, the elderly protagonists have to come to terms with misdeeds and bad decisions in their lives for which they desperately seek reconciliation. At the end of his life, Unokichi takes on responsibility for others, not unlike the haya-zumi (freeloader) Sanosuke in Hatashiai, who sacrifices his life for the freedom and happiness of a young couple. In Kikyō, Unokichi is determined to prevent Okuni’s husband Genta (Ogata Naoto) from being killed by his (Unokichi’s) old rival, the boss of the Kyūzō clan, who not only wants to take control of the territory of Unokichi’s former clan but also tries to seduce Okuni and wants her as his mistress. Both Unokichi and Sanosuke fight their old enemies, who represent a menace to the younger generation. Unokichi is determined to kill the yakuza boss in a duel and insists on doing so alone. He says to Genta, who planned to kill Kyūzō himself: “Don’t waste your life. Life should be used for people.” This advice, repeated at the end of the film, emphasizes the importance attached to individual responsibility, a topic that is at the core of many films with Nakadai, including those directed by Kobayashi Masaki, Kurosawa Akira and Gosha Hideo. Nakadai himself continues to take on roles in films which offer critical statements on social and humanitarian issues, addressing social injustice and celebrating human feelings.

Both Hatashiai and Kikyō are set in a social environment determined by rigid codes of behaviour – the world of the samurai (Hatashiai) and that of the yakuza are similar with regard to questions of honour and obedience. Moreover, Kikyō and also the three other films with Nakadai that are mentioned above deal with universal themes such as guilt, remorse and the desire for redemption. Unokichi says that since the killing in Edo he has lived “a dead life” and that he and his mistress have travelled on “a hellish road”. The protagonist’s inner torment is conjured up in the recurring nightmare sequences in which two things figure – a painting that represents a Buddhist vision of hell and a candle suddenly extinguished by a draught. At the end of the film, Unokichi is ready to face his past. A flashback reveals exactly what happened in the temple. Past and present are connected via the editing. The final shot in this flashback shows not young Unokichi whose hands have killed once again, but Unokichi as an old man. In the next shot, twenty-eight years later, Unokichi, is looking at his outstretched hands, those of a strangler, before folding them in praise of Amida Buddha.

Despite the advanced stage of his illness, Unokichi is still strong in body and mind, repudiating the claim by one of the gamblers who, with no respect for the elderly, says that an old man will not be of any use in a battle between the two yakuza clans. Unokichi demonstrates his swordfighting skill on several occasions in the film. His strength and quickfire reactions are almost superhuman when he fights a man who has molested Okuni. In his accomplished acting, Nakadai shows what people of his age are still capable of. His presence and performance – as always outstanding and very personal – contribute greatly to this film’s multifaceted portrait of its aging protagonist, infusing Kikyō with a particular charm and forcefulness. Close-ups of his face reveal the intensity of the protagonist’s emotions. He beams when he sees Okuni for the first time, unaware at that moment that she is his daughter but surprised by her resemblance to the woman he once wanted to marry, and then, when he learns that he has a daughter, his face becomes expressionless as if he has put on a mask. There are several monologues delivered by Unokichi – some of them off-screen – which highlight Nakadai’s complex skill with his voice, a voice that is sometimes sharp and commanding in tone and sometimes sad and bleating, for example when after killing his old nemesis, Unokichi says to himself: “Bastard Kyūzō. Everyone is dead. How lonely …”.

Not unlike the yakuza Nakadai played in Gosha Hideo’s Kagerō (Heatwave, 1990), who is tormented by his inner demons after murdering a fellow gambler in full view of the man’s little daughter, Unokichi is consumed with guilt, a guilt that only his death can atone for. When he leaves his hometown for a second time, Unokichi’s smile is that of a man in harmony with himself who has accomplished his task, calmed the spirits of the dead, and can now die peacefully. The final shots are those of the old yakuza disappearing into the landscape while chorale-like Western style music is heard and the sun’s rays seem almost otherworldly, reminiscent of religious images in both Asian (Buddhist) and European (Christian) traditions. The strong suggestion of redemption is supported acoustically (by the music) and visually (by the photography) conveying a message of redemption that is universal.

Kikyō – The Return. Japan, 2019. Director: Sugita Shigemichi. Screenplay: Sugita Shigemichi and Kobayashi Masahiro, based on the novel Kikyō by Fujisawa Shuhei. Actors: Nakadai Tatsuya, Tokiwa Takako, Kitamura Kazuki, Ogata Naoto, Nakamura Atsuo, Tanida Ayumi, Satō Jirō, Hashizune Isao, Tanaka Misato, Maeda Aki, Mita Yoshiko and others. Produced by Jidai-geki Senmon Channel/TBA

1.Kiso-Fukushima, located in today’s Nagano Prefecture, is an ancient post town on the Nakasendo Highway, which connected Edo with Kyōto.



by Andrea Grunert

In this year that marks the centenary of Mifune Toshirō’s birth (he was born on 1 April 1920 and died on 24 December 1997), I am still surprised how much his versatility is overlooked. He is celebrated as an international star and as an icon inextricably linked to the figure of the samurai, as in the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai (USA/Japan, Steven Okazaki, 2015), but this tends to obscure the great creativity with which he approached all his roles. It is true that Mifune was often typecast – as a samurai or as a senior army or navy officer. However, even in his most stereotypical roles, he succeeded in creating fleshed-out individuals, employing a great variety of expressive means to make them convincing and appealing. Mifune started his career in gendai geki (1) such as Ginrei no hate (Snow Trail, Taniguchi Senkichi, 1947) and Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, Kurosawa Akira, 1948), in which he played the young rebel, captivating Japanese filmgoers with his unusually intense acting style (2). In the early years of his career he was sometimes cast in romantic roles – as the young and sexually inexperienced peasant who finds love quite by chance in the third episode of Naruse Mikio’s Ishinaka sensei gyōjōki (Conduct Report on Professor Ishinaka, 1950) or the bank employee in love with a married woman in Tsuma no kokoro (A Wife’s Heart, Naruse, 1956). Film critic Satō Tadao calls Mifune the “classic example of the tateyaku” (3), the strong male in kabuki theatre (4), and states: “Since his debut in 1947 he has appeared in approximately one hundred and twenty films. However, as far as I remember, he has only played three or four love scenes, in which he was so terribly miscast that they are a clear case of the exception proving the rule.” (5) I disagree with Satō’s claim. There is a clear romantic element in the character of some of the heroic swordfighters Mifune played in numerous jidai geki (6) in the 1950s and early 1960s (7). Both here and in those films in which he was cast as the young lover, he explores the many facets of his roles through his vivid and inventive acting style, heightened by his charisma and sex appeal. This is especially true for Kinoshita Keisuke’s Konyaku yubiwa (Wedding Ring aka Engagement Ring, 1950), a film in which Kinoshita deals with love and passion in a surprisingly light-hearted manner. The topic of unfulfilled love has rich potential for tragedy, but Kinoshita chose instead a mixture of melodrama and comedy. In this film, Mifune plays a doctor, Ema, who falls in love with Noriko, the wife of one of his patients. Tanaka Kinuyo is cast as Kuki Noriko and Uno Jūkichi as her husband Michio. Konyaku yubiwa gives Mifune the opportunity to display his youthful charm in the role of a kindly young man (8) and to show his talent for comedy and for emotional intensity.

Context and characters

The focus in Konyaku yubiwa is on the three main characters and the relationships between them. At a formal level, the elegant switches between close-ups and landscape photography indicate the link between the private and the public sphere and the symbolic relevance of personal experience as a social microcosm. Most of the action takes place in the seaside town of Ajirō, in the southern part of Atami (9), and at the Kukis’ mansion in this resort. The viewer is given a few glimpses of the bustling life in Tokyo, where the Kuki family owns a jeweller’s shop. There are impressions of everyday life such as the shots of passengers leaving a train at the station or on the crowded bus going to Ajirō. The many close-ups and medium close-ups of the main characters are a clear indication that the emphasis is on human beings. Their story and their feelings give insights into Japanese society recovering from wartime destruction. A number of shots evoke an idyll untouched by the violence of war – the coastline scenery with cherry trees in bloom, the park with plum trees, the picturesque inn, the beach in Ajirō. The Kukis live in an elegant mansion, implying business success. However, this idyll is undermined by hidden fears, sexual frustration, repressed desires and jealousy. Michio, suffering from tuberculosis (10), is weakened from his illness. His tanka poems reveal his pessimistic world view as does the sad expression on his face, captured by the camera in a number of close-ups. Obsessed by his inability to lead a normal married life, he is plagued by self-doubt, making him the epitome of the defeated Japanese male, helpless and emasculated. Male vigour and youthful strength are represented by the handsome and rugged Ema, who is bursting with energy. Mifune’s muscular body, showcased in the scenes in which Ema wears swimming trunks, contrasts with Michio’s emaciated face and obvious physical weakness.

Ema is not the only character with contagious vitality. Noriko is an active woman who runs the family business, something that the men in the Kuki family are unable (Michio) or unwilling (Michio’s father) to do. This is a rather unusual role for a Japanese woman, despite the fact that during the war women had to replace men in factories and do other typically male jobs and despite the efforts of the Occupation forces to strengthen the role of women in Japanese society, who for centuries had been suppressed in a rigid patriarchal system. (11) During the week, Noriko even lives alone in Tokyo in order to fulfil her duties at the Kukis’ large jeweller’s shop. It is on one of her trips back home that she and Ema first meet. In a crowded bus, Ema, standing next to the seated Noriko, catches a glimpse of her. But instead of her face, the camera focus is on the wedding ring (12) on her finger. The ring and Ema’s shoes are the two objects that repeatedly appear, symbolizing the development of the relationship between the doctor and Noriko. The ring marks Noriko as taboo for Ema, and this situation is at the core of the complicated relationships between the three protagonists and the film’s moral discourse. Close-ups of the ring figure in the sequence in which Noriko first touches Ema, though she does so only playfully, and on several other occasions when she has already decided against deepening her relationship with the doctor. However, there is a significant moment during a trip back to Tokyo when she has – accidentally, as she claims – left the ring at home, a ring which she treasures so much that, during the war, she had hidden it from the military when they were confiscating luxury items as contributions to the war effort. Facing hardship because of her love for Michio, she now finds herself on the threshold of adultery. Torn between love for Michio and the desire inflamed in her by Ema, she reveals her feelings to the doctor, saying that she no longer looks forward to the week-ends spent with her sick husband.

The wedding ring is a symbol and a constant reminder of conjugal fidelity; and Ema’s shoes also play an important role in the relationship that develops between Ema and Noriko. In the first sequence of the film, Noriko smiles when she notices Ema’s old white sneakers, shown in close-up. When they meet in Tokyo, she offers him elegant leather shoes, finding them more appropriate for a doctor. When they meet again, she is surprised to discover that he still wears his sneakers, which he explains by saying that they are more comfortable. Following a further meeting with Noriko, who is clearly flirting with him, the confused Ema, struggling with his emotions, is heading for the station, the sneakers shown in close-up. The next shot is another close-up, now of Ema wearing the new shoes and walking in the opposite direction, towards the Kukis’ mansion. This acceptance of the gift suggests his acceptance of his feelings and hints at the possibility of adultery.

The two objects not only have dramatic and symbolic meaning but also serve to avoid excessive sentimentality and function as effective and economic narration. With its clever blend of melodrama and humour, Kinoshita’s film reveals a wide range of feelings and great human complexity. The first deliberate physical contact between Noriko and Ema is when she runs after him, bringing him the notebook with her husband’s tanka poems – really just a pretext to talk to the doctor again before he leaves for Atami. Taken aback by Noriko saying: “Your hands are so strong,” Ema replies with a big smile: “No, these are gentle hands.” Noriko playfully taps his hand, which he pulls away quickly, looking bewildered. A close-up of Ema’s face reveals his inner turmoil when he continues walking toward the trains station. However, after this scene the doctor starts to wear the new leather shoes. Noriko’s sexual desire is fully revealed in the scene in which she stares at Ema’s jacket, drenched with sweat. She touches her face with her hands as if in agony and then hides it behind them before plunging it into the garment and breathing in deeply the smell of Ema’s body. Ema’s confusion about his feelings for Noriko reaches a peak during their last meeting, when the young man, a look of despair on his face, asks Noriko if he can cry in her lap. His jacket is a symbol and a substitute for his body; but despite their attraction to each other, Noriko’s and Ema’s mutual desire will not lead to fulfilment. In the moments of intimacy  – in the train, at the beach, in the park, in the inn – they reveal their feelings for each other but also their concern for Michio and, in Noriko’s case, her love for him. Desire is always accompanied by feelings of guilt, which are expressed not only verbally but also in the acting. “I can hear my heart beating very fast,” says Ema after swimming in the sea, pointing out that he has not had an opportunity to go swimming for a while and is therefore a bit “rusty”. Addressing these words to Noriko with a bright smile, they may suggest a deeper meaning. Noriko, hardly able to suppress her desire, seems to take this remark as an invitation and touches his naked shoulder. Then follows a cut to Ema’s face in close-up, looking embarrassed. Noriko, seemingly hurt by his reaction, takes a few steps back. Looking at each other, their faces have an expression of both desire and shame.

Contradictory feelings

Ema acts as a catalyst, helping the couple to overcome the crisis in their married life. Noriko, feeling she is desired by a man, is blossoming again (13) and Michio awakens from his lethargy and self-pity. The first encounter between Noriko and Ema in the bus is interspersed by shots of cherry trees in bloom – a symbol of rebirth. This encounter is depicted in an almost comical manner – Ema, having lost his balance in the bus, stumbles and falls into her lap (14). The simple, jaunty tune which accompanies the bus trip contributes to the buoyant rhythm of this sequence, prefiguring the awakening of their feelings for each other. Throughout the film, these feelings are communicated superbly by the two actors. Mifune’s sense of timing, so much admired by Kurosawa (15), and his juvenile nonchalance are the most obvious features, and they make a perfect contribution to the dramatic as well as to the comic moments in the film. When they first meet in the jeweller’s shop, Ema pokes his tongue out at Noriko – a clear indication  that they have already became closer (a little later in the same sequence the dialogue confirms this impression). In another sequence at the shop, Ema expresses his concern for Michio, blaming himself for wishing him dead. His face twisted with grief and his gestures – his hands running through his hair and scratching his legs – reflect his inner torment. His facial expressions and gestures are both natural and appropriate, matching the character’s youthful attitude.

Ema is depicted as a sympathetic young man who not only arouses feelings in Noriko but is very much respected by both Michio and his father. His sneakers and clothes of rather poor quality contrast with the wealth of the Kuki family, and close-ups of his face reveal how much he is impressed by the huge mansion in which his patient lives and by the Kukis’ large and elegant jeweller’s shop. They represent the kind of wealth that is completely unfamiliar to him. At one point he criticizes Michio’s self-pity, calling him superficial because he has never known poverty. However, there is a strong bond between the two men, both of whom served in the war. Ema, who confesses that he is in love for the first time, may be inexperienced in matters of love, but he is a caring person who takes his responsibilities as a doctor very seriously and has a profound desire to cure people.

A happy ending

In the second-last sequence Noriko joins Ema at an inn. The meeting takes place in a small room where dinner is served for the couple. The sequence is dramatically and visually complex, built upon facial and body expressions as well as gazes. Ema accepts Noriko’s decision to stay with her husband, but reveals his own feelings in a highly emotional manner. The focus is on Ema whose intense facial expressions, gestures and movements (16) are emphasized by camera positions and editing, to show how much he is torn between passion and duty. Both actors deliver fine and very nuanced performances in this long sequence, combining strong emotions with more light-hearted moments. One example is when the couple enjoys beers and talks about Michio’s future and his cure in the mountains.

The protagonists return to their traditional roles in society, in accordance with the moral conventions that the film clearly advocates. What has happened to Ema and Noriko was only “a passing fever”. It is not simply that Ema wears his sneakers again. Their return to traditional roles is further emphasized by the fact that Noriko abandons her western-style clothes and wears a kimono in the last part of the film. She has also decided to give up her life as a businesswoman and accompany her husband to a sanatorium in the mountains. Both Michio and Ema have a traditional view of women as faithful wives, and during the very emotional dialogue in the park, it is Ema who speaks with the voice of reason (“We need to cool our hearts”) and asks Noriko to stop crying as others are already staring at them. However, traditional Japanese masculinity has undergone some changes. Ema as well as Michio are depicted as men who admire Noriko for her vitality and treat her with great respect, an attitude more in line with western romantic concepts of love than with Japanese patriarchal traditions (17). The guilt-ridden Michio shows great understanding for his wife, and despite his increasing jealousy, he encourages her to join Ema at the beach. However, it is Noriko who plays the active part in her relationship with the young doctor, emphasized by the expensive looking shoes she offers him. Ema is depicted as an inexperienced young man, troubled by feelings previously unknown to him. Noriko assures her husband that nothing improper has happened between her and the doctor, who “is a nice man with pure intentions”. Without challenging moral conventions, Kinoshita reveals through emotionally intense moments, all marvellously supported by his cast, the conflicts that can arise from adhering to such conventions. In Konyaku yubiwa, the conflicts are resolved, and Kinoshita’s film has a happy ending not only for Noriko and Michio, for whom there is great hope of being cured, but for Ema as well who has a new patient to take care of – the young female bus conductor shown at the beginning of the film – and sees his two friends off in a joyful mood.


1 Films and tales set in the contemporary world.

2 See Andrea Grunert “Mifune Toshirō: A Star with a Thousand Faces”,, 31 March 2020.

3 Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema, New York, Kodansha International 1987, p. 19.

4 The term tateyaku means literally “standing role”. It refers to the role of the heroic male in kabuki theatre.

5 Satō, ibid., p. 19.

6 The term can be roughly translated as “period film”.

7 Mifune played heroes with romantic qualities in several historical films such as Miyamoto Musashi (Samurai, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1954) and its two sequels (1955 and 1956), Yagyū bugeichō (The Yagyu Secret Scrolls, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1957), Nippon tanjō (The Three Treasures, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1959), Yagyū bugeichō – sōryū hiken (The Yagyu Secret Scrolls – Ninjutsu, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1958) and Ōsaka-jō monogatari (Daredevil in the Castle, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1961).

8 This sympathetic character matches Mifune’s image as projected in numerous fan magazines such as Kinda Eiga and Eiga Fan throughout the 1950s.

9 Atami is a resort famous for its hot springs.

10 See William Johnston, The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan, Cambridge, Mass., The Council of East Asian Studies/Harvard University Press, 1997. It was not until the newly developed antibiotic streptomycin became available in Japan in 1948 that tuberculosis could be cured. (Cf. Johnston, ibid., p. 287)

11 For more information on gender roles in early post-war Japan see Naoko Shibusawa America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2006.

12 The diamond ring shown in frequent close-ups is Noriko’s engagement ring she wears on the outside of her wedding ring. However, in order to avoid any confusion about Noriko’s status as a married woman, I refer to it as “wedding ring”.

13 Michio comments on the fact that Noriko seems more beautiful than ever and he also observes that she no longer wears the same clothes most of the time and pays more attention to her appearance.

14 The comic moment in the bus when Ema is thrown into Noriko’s lap has its melodramatic counterpart at the inn when the desperate Ema asks Noriko if he can “cry in her lap”.

15 Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, New York, Vintage, 1983, p. 161.

16 For instance, while Noriko is kneeling in front of the dinner table, Ema leaves the table to sit down first at the windowsill and then on a chair at some distance from Noriko.

17 Mark McLelland points out that the attitudes in Japanese culture with regard to sex and gender that existed in the ‚opening‘ of Japan to the West remained unchanged for almost a hundred years. “Also odd [for the Japanese] was the extreme deference that Western men paid to their ‚ladies‘, at least in public. Although in the Confucian system men of lower status were able to show respect to high-status women without compromising their masculinity, the Western practice of ‚ladies first‘ in which men deferred to women in general seemed a peculiar idea, one that was still able to amaze Japanese people even in the early days of the American Occupation that was to take place almost a century later.” (McLelland, Love, Sex, and Democracy in Japan During the Occupation, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 14)


by Andrea Grunert

Many years ago, when I told colleagues that my PhD thesis was on the films of Clint Eastwood, some of them gave me a look suggesting that they pitied me. Even today, and despite the thirty-eight films he has directed since 1971, I hear and read condescending remarks on Eastwood, still considered by some to be a second-rate director who cannot really be taken seriously. However, since his directorial debut Play “Misty” for Me (1971), in which he challenged his hard-boiled hero image by playing a radio disc jockey who is stalked by a female fan, he has always revealed himself as a director in full control of everything he does.

Eastwood is a great narrator whose films continue to uphold traditions of Classical Hollywood cinema. But first and foremost, he is a man who knows how to tell a story in images, and these images are by no means shallow. On the contrary, they challenge the viewer to subject them to close scrutiny in order to grasp their depth and subtleties. Eastwood has a vision, and this vision is a connecting link from his very first film to his latest one, Richard Jewell (2019). The value of individualism and the exploration of man’s dark obsessions and of violence are recurrent themes in his films. Other factors they have in common are the actor-director’s interest in music – jazz above all, but also country and western music – and his fascination for the many shades of black which became a trademark of his films long before the arrival of high film sensitivity and new digital techniques. His world view can be detected in the films that he did not direct but over which he exercised control, having founded his own production company – Malpaso Productions in 1967. In the 1970s and 1980s, Eastwood was more dependent on his image as the strong individual and had to play this role for his fans, who expected him to win and not to die of tuberculosis like the country singer Red Stovall in Honkytonk Man (1982, Eastwood). However, he was presumably never involved in productions which he completely disliked, and he was able to alternate more action-oriented films with personal projects such as Honkytonk Man and Bronco Billy (1980). And he made – and still makes – use of his hero image in a creative way, not simply modifying it but repeatedly calling it into question. Reflections on the making of legends create a powerful subtext in many of his films (1). Eastwood’s star image resonates in his films, even in those in which he does not appear such as American Sniper (2014), in which Chris Kyle, the SEAL played by Bradley Cooper, recalls the police officer Dirty Harry (played by Eastwood in a series of five films from 1971 to 1988). Both men are experts in their field and both are obsessed with their dark side, one of the main differences between the two being the reason that in Kyle’s case the traumatism is explained.

The construction of heroes: Flags of Our Fathers

War and violence are the topics of both Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2007). Both films deal with the battle on the tiny Japanese island of Iwo Jima (2) that lasted from 19 February to 26 March 1945. It was the battle in which the U.S. military suffered the largest number of casualties in World War II (3), but for many Americans it became a symbol of heroism. Flags of Our Fathers was initially one of Steven Spielberg’s projects, and his DreamWorks Pictures co-produced Eastwood’s film (4). Letters from Iwo Jima was Eastwood’s own idea and represented an enormous risk for a Hollywood production because the cast consists almost entirely of Japanese actors speaking Japanese. Leaving Aeschylus’s The Persians aside, it is perhaps the first attempt to present a battle from the viewpoint of “the enemy”, this alone making Letters from Iwo Jima a unique work of art. These two films deal not only with war and violence, memory and trauma but also address the topic of legend-making (here not connected with Eastwood’s own screen persona) and questions of representation and perception.

Paul Haggis rewrote William Broyles Jr.’s first film script for Flags of Our Fathers (5). Both scripts rely on James Bradley’s book Flags of Our Fathers (6); the author being the son of John Bradley, one of the flag raisers in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph taken during the battle and one of the film’s main characters. Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima contain realistic battle scenes that encourage emotional participation through fragmentation by camera movement and editing and the cacophony of gunfire, explosions and voices shouting commands or crying for help. There is much graphic violence – soldiers burnt alive, dead soldiers lying in their own blood, human intestines, severed limbs – but this is never used for mere effect or glorification and there is nothing heroic about the horrors of war that both the Americans and the Japanese soldiers have to endure. Instead, emphasis is put on how the war affects the characters. Flags of Our Fathers depicts the change the young Marines undergo, often doing so in subtle ways. They are portrayed as boyish and unconcerned in the scenes at Camp Tarawa (Hawaii) before the battle, and on their way to Iwo Jima. In one scene on the ship some of them have fun playing cards. When Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) shows his comrades photographs of dead American soldiers and a song referring to death on the battlefield is aired on the radio, their mood changes. Suddenly there is silence, the young men lost in thought. In the next shot, three of them are shown on deck, mere silhouettes enveloped in mist and deathly figures. The ghostlike appearance of the soldiers is in both films reinforced by an absence of colour. Eastwood uses an extremely reduced range of colours, making in particular the battle scenes in Letters from Iwo Jima (which means two thirds of the film) close to black-and-white photography. This lack of colour is reminiscent of the archive material from World War II at the end of Flags of Our Fathers, and in Letters from Iwo Jima it is an omen that the Japanese defenders of the island are doomed from the very beginning.

Flags of Our Fathers suggests that the survivors such as Bradley are themselves living dead, still haunted by their war experience. The film starts with the cry: “Corpsman!”. The camera follows a soldier running across the battlefield at night to rescue one of his comrades. It is John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), nicknamed “Doc”, who is the corpsman called to duty. The camera reveals what Bradley sees – carnage – and shows the young man’s face, then his eyes in close-up, a tear running down his cheek. In the next shot we hear the cry “Corpsman!” again as an old man awakes from a nightmare. The old man is the aged John Bradley, confronted by memories he has been unable to suppress his whole life long.

James Bradley’s book traces the lives of the six Marines, including John Bradley, who are shown in the photograph of the raising of the American flag at Mount Suribachi. Eastwood gives detailed portrayals of the three surviving soldiers, with an emphasis on the critical evaluation of their heroization and manipulation in the process of legend-making. Flags of Our Father is a fragmented, non-linear narrative which connects past and present, Iwo Jima and America. The film shifts from the battlefield to present-day America and to different moments in time – before and after the battle. Rosenthal’s photograph forms the core of the narration. “A photo can help to win or lose a war,” says the photographer in an interview in the film. Flags of Our Fathers reveals how a rather insignificant event can be turned into an icon inspiring pride and hope. As James Bradley writes in his book: “(…) the photograph suggested a very different reality from that being experienced by the Marines back on Iwo Jima.” (7). A first flag raising had taken place after the conquest of Mount Suribachi, two days before Rosenthal shot his famous photograph on the occasion of a second flag raising with a bigger flag. This second flag raising was not the result of a heroic effort but took place after an unopposed climb up the hill and passed almost unnoticed. Moreover, the photograph was shot on the sixth day of the battle, a battle that continued for thirty more days. Several pictures were taken at both flag raisings, but it is Rosenthal’s photo with its classic composition of the six men around the pole with the flag in the middle of the picture and its strong dynamism which became an American icon (8).

As the film shows, the photograph was successfully used to inspire courage in the war-weary American citizens. Many of them were unaware of the fact that the battle on Iwo Jima was still raging, but to them the image suggested triumph and the power of the will to succeed. The almost bankrupt American government used the Rosenthal photograph to promote war bonds and arranged bond tours with the three surviving soldiers who were supposedly in the photograph (9): John Bradley, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford). Eastwood, by contrasting the battle scenes with the bond tours in America, reveals two different realities and illustrates what the aged John Bradley says in a voice-over at the beginning of the film: “Every jackass knows what war is, especially those who have never been in one.” During the bond tours in the film a dessert made of meringue is created which has the shape of Mount Suribachi, and the young men, instrumentalized by the military and by politicians, become heroes but do not enjoy their celebrity status (except for Rene Gagnon). How much they are haunted by their war experience is revealed through the editing. The three men are standing on a heap of earth surrounded by darkness, but the sound of detonations accompanying the sequence does not come from machine gun fire and is the sound of fireworks. Camera movement reveals that the Marines are standing on a small artificial hill in the middle of a stadium somewhere in the United States, where a burst of applause follows the firework explosions. Then, once again, we hear the cry “Corpsman!” John Bradley, framed in close-up, turns around to face the camera, as if listening to the sound of his memory. In the next sequence he is on Iwo Jima again, and this time the noise is that of a fierce battle. The editing effects in this scene and in many others in both films are smooth. They are almost imperceptible movements from one space to another, from one time to another, revealing that these two realities simply cannot be disconnected in the minds of the survivors (10).

Giving the enemy a human face: Letters from Iwo Jima

In Flags of Our Fathers, the Japanese remain anonymous, shooting from their hiding places or presented as the faceless targets of the Marines. In Letters from Iwo Jima, the roles are reversed and “the enemy” has a face, a name and a story of its own. Eastwood shows the daily life of the defence forces, the harsh conditions in the cave system (11) which the commanding officer General Tadamichi Kuribayashi has had built over a period of several months before the American invasion.

The narrative structure of Letters from Iwo Jima is less fragmented but is just as complex as Flags of Our Fathers (12). The emphasis is on Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and the young Private Saigō (Ninomiya Kazunari), establishing a strange bond between the general and the ordinary soldier who in civilian life is a baker. Kuribayashi saves Saigō from punishment by sadistic officers several times and even saves him from death, and at the end it is Saigō who buries the general.

For weeks the Japanese had to survive in the caves and tunnels on the volcanic island – also known as Sulphur Island – with almost no vegetation and scarce water resources (13). In the final days of the battle, they were completely without food and water. However, and in contrast to the stereotype of the obedient Japanese, they are not depicted as a homogeneous group but as individuals, each with his own opinion – for example, Saigō  who expresses his criticism of the military government’s policy (“There is nothing sacred about this island”, (14) and mocks it (after one of his comrades has died of dysentery, he says that he died of “honourable dysentery”, referring to the credo of the Japanese military to die an “honourable death”). Kuribayashi is represented as an open-minded man who has spent several years in the United States (15) and is aware of America’s technological superiority. However, his ideas are regarded with mistrust by some of his officers, who see him as a friend of the enemy and therefore weak. The film represents Kuribayashi – the creator of the ingenuous subterranean cave and tunnel system on Iwo Jima who was able to inflict the greatest losses to the Americans in the Pacific theatre – as a clever strategist. Indeed, Eastwood was drawn to Kuribayashi because of his strategic skills and unorthodox solutions (16). It was in his letters that he discovered Kuribayashi‘s human side (17). His portrayal of Kuribayashi is as a skilful military strategist who shows concern for the ordinary soldiers, an attitude which distinguishes him from many other Japanese officers. Ken Watanabe plays him as a cosmopolitan and humorous character and a caring father and husband.

Beside the two main protagonists, there are several other characters in Letters from Iwo Jima who are not at all stereotypes, and who reveal their desires and fears, their hopes and their despair. It is in their letters that they often express their feelings, showing that there are no differences between the ordinary soldier and the general, the Japanese and the Americans. Many of these letters are addressed to wives or mothers. And it is a letter from the mother of the American prisoner Sam which moves the Japanese soldiers listening to Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara, 18) when he reads it to them. Under the impact of that letter, Shimizu (Ryō Kaze) reconsiders his opinion of the Americans, who are described as weak and barbaric in the Japanese propaganda. However, when he decides to surrender and shows himself unarmed, he is shot dead by a Marine seeking revenge. Avoiding simplistic views of both the Americans and the Japanese, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima deal with the very idea of truth. Shimizu, suspected of being a spy by one of his comrades, reveals to Saigō that he is no longer a member of the kempeitai, the feared military police, but was dishonourably dismissed from its ranks. There are also links between the two films that serve to indicate errors of judgment by the Americans. In Flags of Our Fathers, the Marines discover the mutilated corpses of a group of Japanese soldiers who have blown themselves up with hand grenades. For the Americans, this fits the cliché that the Japanese die stoically. Letters from Iwo Jima depicts their moment of collective suicide. The men follow the example of their fanatical commanding officer to the death, but they express a variety of feelings such as fear and regret. And Saigō disobeys the orders of the officer, respecting Kuribayashi’s shunning of suicide and also his own survival instinct.

War and humanism: a dilemma?

Kuribayashi requires his men to fight to the death, following the policy of the military government of that time, which he does not question; however, this does not prevent him from taking some individual decisions. It is through such contradictions that Eastwood depicts him as a human being. But are they contradictions? Kuribayashi follows orders as military men are trained to do – in Japan as well as in the West. War is something which human beings are apparently unable to avoid, Eastwood seems to say, placing his two films in the context of recent or ongoing wars. Kuribayashi is represented as an ideal honourable and chivalrous but he remains a man of flesh and blood and is never a mere cliché, something which cannot be taken for granted in Hollywood productions dealing with America’s former enemy.

Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima have a commemorative dimension, but they concentrate on what war does to men, leaving them traumatized and forever wounded. They challenge the Manicheism created by the propaganda in both countries and perpetuated by Hollywood films and also the racism that the Pima Indian Ira Hayes was the victim of (19). There is no historical record of Kuribayashi’s death, who in the film kills himself with the colt revolver he was so proud of. This colt is an object of significance in the film’s discourse on perception and identity. When Saigō spots it for the first time, he concludes that Kuribayashi must have taken it from a dead American soldier. Later, a flashback reveals that the weapon was a farewell present from Kuribayashi’s American friends when he left his post at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Before he dies, Kuribayashi has a vision of himself driving a car along a road in America, the colt on the passenger seat. His voice-over, reading a letter written to his young son Tarō, reveals his happiness at being able to return home soon but also his regret at leaving his American friends. These two feelings coexist, being part of Kuribayashi’s complex character. After he has buried the general, Saigō is surrounded by a group of Marines. He attacks them desperately with his shovel when he sees that one of the soldiers has Kuribayashi’s revolver at his belt. Now it is a trophy and one which, ironically, will find its way back to America. The weapon creates a subtext dealing with false assumptions and also dealing with friendship and the overcoming of prejudices. It adds a new layer of meaning to the death scene, reducing its sentimental element. And this is just one example of the multiple perspectives that open up complex views on a single event, an event that changed the lives of so many men.



  1. Eastwood works and reworks his own legend, relying on the role of the powerful individual, and in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) contributes to the legend of the American invasion of Grenada in 1983.

  1. The island has a surface area of eight square miles.

  1. The U.S. casualties were “six thousand killed and twenty-five thousand wounded, while the Japanese defense force of twenty thousand was virtually annihilated.” (See John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, New York, Pantheon, 1987, p. 92). The numbers may vary slightly from author to author, but they give an indication of the importance of the battle.

  1. Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were produced by DreamWorks, Malpaso Productions and Amblin Entertainment.

  1. Lacking access to the original script, I am unable to compare the two. The name of William Broyles Jr. as one of the scriptwriters of Flags of Our Fathers has been kept for legal reasons, but apparently his script underwent considerable changes after Eastwood took over the project.

  1. James Bradley with Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers, New York, Bantham, 2000.

  1. Bradley, op. cit.

  1. Displayed in American newspapers, most of which covered the battle on Iwo Jima, it appeared in the same year on a postage stamp. The memorial to the Marines at Arlington National Cemetery is a copy in bronze of the group photographed by Rosenthal, and it became the model for other war memorials in the United States. The image was evoked once more during a ceremony paying tribute to New York’s firemen in the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001, thus showing that it still has its hold on the American imagination to inspire courage at a moment of defeat.

  1. As the films shows, there was much confusion about the identity of the six Marines in the picture in which the faces cannot really be identified. According to recent research by James Bradley, we cannot even be sure that his father was one of the flag raisers. (Cf. Michael S. Schmidt, “Flags of Our Fathers’ Author Now Doubts His Father Was in Iwo Jima Picture”, The New York Times, 3 May 2016).

  1. This editing technique is also used in sequences with Ira Hayes and to a lesser degree in those focusing on Rene Gagnon.

  1. Kuribayashi used natural caves and had new ones built, all connected by tunnels. The underground passageways had a total length of 17 miles.

  1. Letters from Iwo Jima contains sequences of a Japanese research team exploring the caves in 2005 and flashbacks to events in the lives of the soldiers Saigō and Shimizu and to Kuribayashi’s time in the United States.

  1. Flags of Our Fathers was shot in Iceland and Letters from Iwo Jima in California (Malibu, Barstow, Bakersfield).This second film also includes a number of shots on Iwo Jima for which Eastwood obtained special permission, enabling him to add landscape shots that included residual evidence of the war – tanks, weapons, helmets and other material –, shots of the two war memorials on Mount Suribachi, and a few showing Ken Watanabe as Kuribayashi exploring the island’s topography.

  1. Iwo Jima had important symbolic significance for the Japanese. Part of the Japanese archipelago, it was where the first battle fought on Japanese soil took place and was therefore not only important for strategic reasons and for its two airfields.

  1. Kuribayashi was deputy military attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Washington from 1928 to 1930.

  1. Clint Eastwood quoted by Jack Foley, “Letters from Iwo Jima – Clint Eastwood Interview”,, not dated.

  1. Cf. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Picture Letters from the Commander-in-Chief: Letters from Iwo Jima., edited by Tsuyuko Yoshida, San Francisco, VIZ Media LLC, 2007

  1. Baron Takeichi Nishi was a Japanese equestrian show jumper and Olympic Gold Medalist at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. He died on Iwo Jima.

  1. At several points the film criticizes American racism targeting the Native American Ira Hayes. In his book, James Bradley plays down this racism and Hayes’s status as a victim.



You can read more from Andrea Grunert on the films by Clint Eastwood in the book

DICTIONNAIRE CLINT EASTWOOD,  Vendémiaire, October 2016.  978-2363582430 (In French)