Questions about "Letters from Iwo Jima" + Kuribayashi's Letters

Michael McCaskey mccaskem at
Mon Feb 26 08:09:33 EST 2007

I'm not quite sure what a "dialect" would be in this context, but here are a couple of speculations.

1) There was a style of speaking, "military Japanese," back then, not much different from what the military establishment in any country requires - a clipped, brusque, assertive style. Like at a US Marine training camp now. Since 1945, most people in Japan have not been involved with the military, and that style of speaking does not come naturally at all for most young men.
The DVD version of the recent movie "Otokotachi no Yamato," the saga of Japan's and maybe the world's biggest battleship and how it went down in 1945, has a companion special features disk showing in detail how the actors had to be trained to behave the way Navy personnel did before 1945.
There's also a sort of science fiction Anime series, "Zipang," coming out now in a US format with subtitles, which has pre-1945 Japanese Navy characters and near-future "Self-Defense" Navy characters interacting. It shows many differences in the behavior patterns and attitudes of the two types of characters.

2) There's a possibility that the Japanese military units on Iwo Jima might have been organized in some regional area, sort of like the Texas National Guard, and so spoke in a regional manner. I've never heard or read about that, though.

3) Dialect coaches work with the casts of many Japanese movies and TV shows, when some are all characters are supposed to have regional "accents." The result is usually a manner of speaking which has a regional flavor, but is understandable for everyone in Japan. In "Otokotachi no Yamato," many of the main characters are working-class, mostly from Hiroshima, and use a few regional dialect features here and there, but their speech is still universally intelligible. The higher-level officers in the film speak in the brusque, laconic pre-1945 style.

4) I've not seen the film version used in Japanese theaters, so I don't know whether any subtitles are used. Some Japanese film DVDs have optional Japanese subtitles, for the hearing-impaired, etc. I've only seen one Japanese film with "built-in" subtitles, long ago, in a theater in Japan - that was "Otoshi-ana," a film about working-class people, mostly in Kyushu dialect.

5) Finally, from a different angle, there's an interesting article in English in today's Japan Times online, by Sato Hiroaki, about the "letters from Iwo Jima," based on Sato's own detailed reading of all of Kuribayashi's letters, at:

I hope this helps answer your questions partially. I'm sure others on this list will supply fuller answers.

Michael McCaskey
Georgetown University

----- Original Message -----
From: George Robinson <grcomm at>
Date: Sunday, February 25, 2007 4:36 pm
Subject: Questions about "Letters from Iwo Jima"

> Dear fellow listmembers --
> This may be slightly far afield. In a recent interview, Clint 
> Eastwood 
> told the Guardian's Philip French that much of the film's dialogue 
> is in 
> an old dialect. Asked about his problems vis-a-vis a Japanese cast 
> and 
> crew, he likened it to Sergio Leone's situation when they worked 
> together.He tells French:
> "The thing we had to overcome here, which Sergio didn't have to 
> overcome, is we had to tell the story in the dialect of 65 years 
> ago, 
> which is a different Japanese dialect than they use now and a lot 
> of 
> different vocabulary. We had a few older Japanese actors, who knew 
> of 
> the older style and so we were aware of that. . . . When we 
> recorded the 
> kids - because that was a real instance where [a group of 
> children] made 
> this live radio broadcast and sung a song for the men on Iwo Jima -
> we 
> had to make sure that they learnt the dialect. It was tricky 
> because it 
> had never been recorded. It had only been sent out over the 
> airwaves at 
> that time."
> So, two questions. One, the obvious one, is what exactly is he 
> referring to?
> The second is the logical follow-up: is the film subtitled in Japan?
> George Robinson
> Visit my blog at:
> >   

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