Earlier this year as Japan was gearing up for a summer of painful Second World War anniversaries Yoshitaka Shindo received a phone call. Clint Eastwood was planning to visit Tokyo and would very much like to meet the Japanese Diet member to discuss a project he was working on. Was he available? 'Of course I said yes,' says Councillor Shindo.
The project was a movie about Iwo Jima, a speck of volcanic rock in the Pacific Ocean about 700 miles south of Tokyo and the site of one of the war's most brutal battles. Shaped like a teardrop, the eight-square-mile island was blasted almost flat, becoming what one veteran called a 'sulphurous, crater-filled hellhole' in six weeks of intense fighting in February and March 1945.
When the fighting stopped, 7,000 Allied soldiers were dead and just 200 of the 21,800 Japanese troops defending the island had been taken alive. The black sands of Iwo Jima passed into military legend, immortalised in a famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal showing a group of battered, exhausted Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi on 23 February 1945. The battle remains, even after 60 years of blood-soaked history in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, the US marines' deadliest: nearly one-third of all marines killed in the Second World War died on the island.
Like many Japanese, Shindo wondered what the two-time Oscar- winning director would make of this story. The gung-ho star of prime slabs of Americana such as Heartbreak Ridge and Dirty Harry, Eastwood is well-known for his right-wing political persuasions; a long-standing Republican, he supported presidents Nixon and Reagan. Wouldn't Eastwood's effort " tentatively titled Lamps Before the Wind " be a replay of the infamous Sands of Iwo Jima, starring another Hollywood tough guy, John Wayne?
Sands, made four years after the soldiers returned home, was as shrill and jingoistic as a piece of Stalinist propaganda, and became a recruiting poster for a generation of marines, inspiring, among others, Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran whose story was dramatised in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July. With its big-hearted US grunts pitted against fanatical, Banzai-screaming 'Nips' and 'Japs', the movie has few fans in Japan, where many old soldiers know that John Wayne never served a day in the armed forces.
When he met Eastwood, however, Shindo was pleasantly surprised. 'He told me he didn't want to make a movie simply about war, but about families and the human heart,' says the lawmaker, who believes Western movies about wartime Japan focus too much on what the Japanese call gyokusai, meaning 'to die an honourable death'. 'He wants to tell the story from both sides,' says Shindo, who has a personal stake in the project: his grandfather, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, was handpicked by Emperor Hirohito to lead the defence of Iwo Jima.
Eastwood's Tokyo trip, during which he flew to Iwo Jima and met survivors, and spoke to politicians including Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, confirms reports that the ageing, increasingly introspective star had something of an epiphany while working on a long-cherished project to turn the bestselling book Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers into a movie.
The film " Eastwood's 26th as director " which finishes shooting this month, tells the story of the young marines in the iconic Rosenthal photo. Three never got off the island alive, while the rest became reluctant heroes, ferried from city to city to whip up morale and flog war bonds before disappearing into post-war obscurity. Eastwood no doubt hopes that the tragic tale of the rise and fall of ordinary American heroes, used then discarded by forces beyond their control, will resonate with contemporary US audiences weary of war in Iraq. But somewhere during filming he realised he was only telling half the story and decided, …