Scriptwriter talks about Japan hit ‘Letters’

by Mark Schilling

Scriptwriting is something seemingly everyone in Hollywood does, from cab drivers to this year’s Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres, who jokingly presented director Martin Scorsese with a script during the telecast. But the percentage of first-time scriptwriters who succeed in getting a feature film made is infinitesimal. And the number nominated for an Academy Award this year was exactly one, Iris Yamashita, for her work on Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

A Japanese-American born in Missouri and raised in California, Yamashita was working as a Web programmer when she wrote short stories and a script, “Traveler in Tokyo,” about her mother’s experiences in wartime Japan. It won a contest — and came to the attention of scriptwriter and director Paul Haggis, who recommended her to Eastwood for “Letters,” a film depicting the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view.

Eastwood’s big Oscar contender this year was supposed to be “Flags of Our Fathers,” which told the story of the Iwo Jima battle and its aftermath from the American perspective, but “Letters” ended up getting more Oscar nominations — four altogether — including one for Yamashita and Haggis’s original screenplay. They did not win the Oscar, which went to “Little Miss Sunshine,” but the film has been a big success in Japan, where it has grossed nearly 5 billion yen after nine weeks in theaters. [Its U.S. box office, about $13 million, is less impressive.]

The Japan Times interviewed Yamashita by e-mail just before the Oscars.

“Letters from Iwo Jima” has become a huge hit in Japan, attracting everyone from the quickly dwindling war generation to their grandchildren. Did this success surprise you?

Yes. I had hoped it would do well in Japan, but the response has been overwhelming. Many people were just happy that Japanese could be portrayed as human in a film about World War II. A friend of mine took her mother to see the film and it resonated with her mother because she had never met her own father, who was called up to war.

Japanese comment that “Letters” plays like a Japanese film. That is, they feel that it is an “inside” view that does not exoticize the Japanese characters. Did you have any feeling that you were writing for a Japanese audience?

Yes, as I was writing “Letters” I did try to think through my Japanese side. For instance, Paul Haggis had some suggestions that would have been great if an American were saying those words but didn’t sound right to me for these characters, and once I explained this, he understood. In particular, I looked into a lot of first person accounts of WWII from the Japanese perspective of not only soldiers but civilians as well.

What sort of input did you have from Eastwood and Haggis? What did you learn as a scriptwriter by working with them?

Clint Eastwood seemed to like the first draft so much that he really didn’t have many notes. He was very supportive of my ideas from the outset and did a tremendous job of portraying the thoughts and messages I had in mind. Eastwood’s masterful ability to draw out a scene taught me that sometimes a moment of silence can be more powerful than words. Paul Haggis worked with me on the outline and was a great mentor. He was very thoughtful in his suggestions and had some general writing tips, such as to strive for the unexpected.

The character of Gen. Kuribayashi was, of course, the linchpin for the entire film. How did you approach him? Did you have any concerns about making him a sympathetic character for an American audience?

The letters to his family certainly drew out his character for me. I didn’t have concerns about making him a sympathetic character because I only portrayed what was based on reality. My main difficulty with his character was ensuring that he was active despite being a high-ranking officer and therefore mostly on the sidelines rather than in the heat of the battle.

Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult to write? Do you feel that you are still living with some of the more disturbing scenes?

Yes, the scenes of brutality [on both sides] were particularly difficult. You never know how people are going to react to that, but people seem to understand that those were necessary to show the horrors of war. Certainly, when I was doing my research, I had to put down the material and really wonder how things ever got to that place and how wasteful it all seemed.

Have you already picked your next project? Would you like to continue to work with Japan-related themes — or even try writing a Japanese film?

I have been looking at a number of projects, but nothing that I can talk about yet. I certainly wouldn’t mind working on Japan-related themes. As I am not so familiar with Japanese films, I’m not sure about tackling that. Logistically as well, I’m not sure how that would work. . . .

What is the biggest thing you’ve taken away from this experience?

The reactions from viewers have been the most rewarding thing for me. The fact that the movie seems to have touched people in a way I never imagined makes me feel so honored that I could be a part of the experience.

Do you feel a stronger connection with Japan after writing “Letters?” What, in a few words, are your impressions and feelings about the place?

Yes, through my research for “Letters,” I feel I have learned a lot more about Japan and, in particular, the hardships that Japanese civilians suffered throughout the war and immediately after the war.

See related stories:
Eastwood didn’t idealize Kuribayashi
From knights to pawns
Hollywood waves the flag for Japan
Telling another side of the story
Iwo Jima: ‘A futile battle’ fought without surrender
His Emperor’s reluctant warrior
‘Even the dead were being forced to fight’
War dead said to haunt Iwojima