Letters from Iwo Jima: Japanese Cheesecake Recipe

Year Released: 2006
|Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido, Nakamura
(R, 141 min.)

"…the readiness is all." William Shakespeare

Told from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers awaiting the inevitable American invasion of Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood gives us this epic World War II battle from the inside out. Hope for reinforcements slowly fades, and the troops tunnel into the mountainside for a valiant last stand, the bitter taste of defeat as pervasive as the dust and darkness of their cavernous trenches.

The battle for Iwo Jima was bloody and brutal, taking some 7,000 American and all but a thousand or so of the 20,000 Japanese defending this volcanic island, but the actual fighting sees little screen time. Instead Eastwood concentrates on the psychology of the men rather than the grand scale of the combat, focusing on a few select individuals. Some officers act with rigid fanaticism, turning on their own; others portray a quiet honor, courage and decency, while the lowly foot soldiers seem helpless pawns whose ties are to their family and not the grand emperor. 

Eastwood introduces us to these three key elements early on. Growing tired of digging trenches on the beach, new recruit Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) suggests to his friend that it would easier just to give this bleak place to the Americans right off. Unfortunately, an officer overhears this and decides to beat the candor out of the two men. Newly arrived General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), an army rather than a navy man, stops the punishment immediately, asking the officer in charge is he has so many men that he can afford to put two out of commission. 

The new general rises further in Saigo’s esteem when he immediately shuts down the beach bunker digging. They will not stop the Americans here at the beach and would only lose needless lives in trying to do so. He walks the island, looking for a better strategy, while the other officers view this departure from traditional tactics with increasing suspicion. Not only is General Kuribayashi an army man, but he has spent time in America.

Letters from Iwo Jima compares to standard war epics, such as The Longest Day much the same way Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead compares to Hamlet. Stoppard retells this grand drama from the eyes of two minor characters from Shakespeare’s play, just two blokes caught up in high level intrigue beyond their comprehension or caring.

It is much the same for Saigo and his friend, dealing with the monotonous drudgery of digging – unfortunately for their backs, the general has merely shifted the digging from the beach to the mountain – and the stale days of waiting for the inevitable attack. Meanwhile, a more insidious enemy, dysentery, whittles away at morale and life. 

Shot in muted grays with just touches of color, the film’s cinematography mirrors the stoic loyalty of General Kuribayashi, whose posthumously published letters formed the basis of the screenplay, as well as the doomed patriotism of Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a former Olympic equestrian star, who literally rides to the rescue of his countrymen, bringing his gallant horse with him to the fortified island. Ironically, both noble men have friends in America, and thus the demonizing slogans against the enemy do not ring true to them, but their call to duty, though tinged with regret, remains steadfast. 

Thus, Letters from Iwo Jima becomes less about that battle, or the greater war in general, but instead is an elegy to the great waste of human energy, youth, and misplaced honor in any war. Of course, it is perhaps only because we prevailed in that last great conflict that director Eastwood has the luxury to lament its horror and bloodshed. It is a testimony to his deft direction that the audience identifies with the plight of the doomed Japanese as reflected here in Emily Dickinson’s poignant poem:

Success is counted sweetest 

By those who ne'er succeed. 

To comprehend a nectar 

Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host 

Who took the flag to-day 

Can tell the definition, 

So clear, of victory!

As he, defeated, dying,

On whose forbidden ear

The distant strains of triumph

Burst agonized and clear!

*I would like to dedicate this review to my father, Jack Griffey (1918-2005), who served as Pharmacist’s Mate from 1943–1945 on the decorated destroyer USS Irwin. His ship saw heavy combat and was part of the battle for Iwo Jima.

Somehow I think he would identify with little Saigo, forced to leave his wife and soon-to-be-born daughter behind when he was called to war. My mother, waiting for him with their infant daughter, Ann, prayed to St. Jude, the saint of impossible causes, as she thought she would never see her husband alive again. And to hear my father’s stories, that was almost the case, as his ship was one of the few to make it back to the safety of San Diego's harbor November 15th, 1945, one day before my sister’s 3rd birthday. 

That is why my middle name is Judith, and it is perhaps why I too attach myself to impossible causes. 

We salute you, Father.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Perhaps the most appropriate “food” for Letters from Iwo Jima would be the many empty dishes set before General Kuribayashi and Baron Nishi, since the general has vowed to eat the same small rations as his men, thus filling only one of the several plates set in place for him.

Instead, let us go to Saigo, the little baker called to serve the emperor whether he likes it or not. I have rejected his beloved sakura cake, mainly because it is too difficult to find the ingredients, and I don’t think too many of us are endeared to bean paste or salted cherry leaves. Instead I’ve chosen a Japanese style of cheesecake, one that is not cooked. It might be just the thing to whip up for your honey on Valentine’s Day.

Japanese Cheesecake

Non-baked cheesecakes are called "rare cheese cakes" in Japan. These types of cold cheesecakes are served with fresh fruits or fruit sauces. You don't have to use oven to make a rare cheesecake.


  • 3/4 cup cream cheese, softened

  • 3/4 cup and 2 tbsps plain yogurt

  • 1/3 cup sugar

  • 2 tbsps lemon juice

  • 1 tbsp powder gelatin

  • 1/4 cup water

  • For Crust: 1 cup crushed graham crackers & 3 tbsps butter & 1 tbsp sugar


Mix powder gelatin and water in a small cup and set aside. Combine crushed graham crackers, melted butter, and sugar in a bowl. Press the crumbs into the bottom of a round cake pan (8 inch). Stir cream cheese in a bowl until soften.

Put water and gelatin mixture into microwave and heat for a min. Add yogurt, sugar, lemon juice, and gelatin into softened cream cheese and mix well. Pour the filling into the crust and spread evenly. Refrigerate for 3 hours. Serve with your favorite fruit or jam.

Recipe Source: Setsuko Yoshizuka