Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima tells the story from the Japanese perspective
Letters From Iwo Jima, winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film, is the second of Clint Eastwood’s two extraordinary film dramas about the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. With a Japanese cast and script, it shows us the war on Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view.
Like its predecessor, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters gives us a grimly earnest picture of war from the perspective of individual combatants and portrays the events of this particular episode in terms that mix the heroic and the ironic, and verge on tragedy. Letters may be even more moving if you’ve already seen Flags, but it also stands boldly and admirably on its own.
While the drama in Flags spirals out of and around the legendary image of U.S. troops raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi, Letters has as its premise the plight of honor-bound Japanese troops isolated on the island and forbidden to surrender. And here again, we get harshly realistic battle scenes and telling dramatizations of the conflicts between official rhetoric and actual combat experience.
The gravity and somber beauty of all this is unmistakable. Eastwood’s even-handed, dispassionate presentation, at once sympathetic and detached, yields surprisingly powerful and complex results again in this film. And as in Flags, some of the most powerful moments emerge only very gradually via an intricate structure of flashbacks and individual story threads.
In the early portions, Letters plays a little like an impersonal docudrama. But its somewhat delayed emotional charge builds, slowly and irresistibly, through the intertwined stories of several doomed Japanese soldiers.
Gallant Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the commanding officer whose belatedly discovered letters are the basis of the film, is a pivotal figure in many respects. But there are several other memorable figures involved—Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic athlete who shares Kuribayashi’s cavalry background; Lt. Ito (Shido Nakamura), an officer bent on self-sacrifice; Shimizu (Ryo Kase), an ex-MP whose virtues are rebuked by friend and foe alike; and the nearly picaresque Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker conscripted in the late stages of the war.
The fugitive entanglements of Saigo and Kuribayashi, two utterly different kinds of soldier, prove eventually to be the most significant and moving of the film’s relationships. The vision of heroic effort and tragic futility seen through the two of them also echoes in the smaller stories—the multiply misunderstood Shimizu, for example, or Ito, who tries to throw himself in the line of fire and ends up dying of exposure and neglect instead.
Watanabe, Ihara and Ninomiya deliver the picture’s standout performances. Tom Stern’s brilliantly gloomy, charcoal-gray cinematography often gives the impression of black and white, with sparse bursts of blood-red or flame-yellow for pointed contrast.