The other side

Letters from Iwo Jima

Planning a battle that consumed tens of thousands of lives.

Planning a battle that consumed tens of thousands of lives.

Rated 4.0

Letters from Iwo Jima is director Clint Eastwood’s companion film to Flags of Our Fathers, released last year. (Letters premiered in Japan in November and got a limited U.S. release in December.) The two titles together constitute, in a sense, one vast, epic film, Eastwood’s dramatic recreation of that long, bloody World War II battle from both sides.

Flags of Our Fathers was based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers and told the American side from three angles: the combat on Iwo itself, the war-bond drive that sent three of the men in Joe Rosenthal’s famous flag-raising photograph on a home-front tour to buck up civilian morale, and the later stories of the battle’s survivors that found them still haunted by the horror over 50 years later.

Letters from Iwo Jima, on the other hand, was the more daunting challenge of the two, not only because of Eastwood’s decision to film almost entirely in the Japanese language (with only a handful of brief scenes spoken in English), but also because relatively little is known about the volcanic island’s 22,000 defenders, 95 percent of whom did not survive. Thus the script by first-time writer Iris Yamashita (from a story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis, one of the writers of the other Iwo film) views the battle through the eyes of two characters—one historical, the other apparently fictitious.

The undeniably historical figure is General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the commander of the Iwo Jima garrison from just before the American invasion until his death, and the island’s fall in late March of 1945. Educated in Canada and familiar with America from his years as a military attaché in Washington, Kuribayashi opposed war with the United States (and lost professional standing because of it), but once in he was determined to fight honorably and long, making America’s victory, however inevitable, as costly as possible. Watanabe plays him with straightforward, un-self-conscious heroism, a figure of valor, compassion and rectitude who inspires most of his men—while others, more rigidly militaristic, regard him with mistrust and suspicion. A book of the general’s posthumously published letters to his wife and son (Picture Letters from Commander in Chief) formed the basis of much of the movie’s script.

The other central character is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a humble baker drafted into the Imperial Army. Saigo, like the general, expresses his hopes and apprehensions in letters to his wife, Hanako (Nae), and the newborn daughter he’s never seen. Through Kuribayashi and Saigo we see the defense of Iwo Jima from both top and bottom—the commander dealing with the frustration of naval and air support being withdrawn and promised reinforcements that will never arrive, the grunt in the trenches and caves grumbling fatalism (“Damn this island. The Americans can have it.”) and wondering if he isn’t simply digging his own grave. As Yamashita and Haggis’ story develops, the lives of Saigo and Kuribayashi intertwine in a poignant and unexpected way.

Director Eastwood, working again with cinematographer Tom Stern, drains his images in a monochrome palette, shades of gray punctuated by the pale, bleached tan of the khaki uniforms, the orange and black explosions and the deep red of shed blood. It gives Letters from Iwo Jima a visual style that combines, all at once, the black-and-white of so much World War II photography, the look of color footage washed and faded by time, and the faint memory of colors the mind recalls but that the eye can no longer see. The look of the film underscores the bleak hopelessness of the men whose story it tells.

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, taken together, crown Eastwood’s already distinguished career. Letters, especially, is a remarkable feat of artistic imagination that feels more like a Japanese movie than an American one. Eastwood and Yamashita let us get to know these men so well that, while we certainly don’t want Japan to win the war, we don’t want these individuals to have to die.