Review: Letters from Iwo Jima

Shot in conjunction with Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima presents the World War II battle from a Japanese perspective. Based in part on letters written by the Japanese commanding officer on the island, the film offers a broad spectrum of the Japanese experience, from laborers forced into uniform to conservative officers ready to kill themselves before surrendering. As in Flags of Our Fathers, the core message is the futility of war. It has rarely been told in such powerful terms.

Letters… is more expansive than the previous film, delving into the lives of the soldiers on the island as they prepare defenses against the pending Allied invasion. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), newly appointed commander of the island, orders the construction of miles of tunnels connecting caves, ignoring traditional beach strongholds. With the defeat of the Japanese fleet at the Battle of the Marianas, he knows that theirs will be a fight to the death.

Some officers oppose Kuribayashi. The general’s only solid ally may be Lt. Col. Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian who, like Kuribayashi, spent time in America. The foot soldiers, like the hapless Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), are more concerned with survival. A former baker, Saigo’s clear aversion to fighting has made him the target of the strict disciplinarian Tanida (Takumi Bando). Many soldiers reached the island as a result of demotions or punishments. The last-minute arrival of Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a possible informant for the dreaded Kampeitai, leaves the others ill at ease.

The fighting doesn’t begin for almost an hour into the film. When it arrives, it is ferocious, impersonal, shot and edited in a manner designed to horrify rather than excite. As the Japanese retreat through the tunnels, and the violence intensifies, the film becomes more and more nightmarish. Eastwood still manages to find heroic gestures and noble sacrifices that help to atone for decades of anti-Japanese propaganda.

The closest precedent to the film may be the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front, which showed the lives of enemy combatants in a sympathetic manner, without judging the politics that brought them into war. Letters… doesn’t address issues of right and wrong except on the most personal levels. Eastwood’s main point may be that no matter what the motives of military leaders, it is left to the common man to fight their battles.

Letters… doesn’t have the insight and precision of Flags of Our Fathers. Eastwood’s grasp of Japan and its people isn’t as sure as his understanding of the United States, although the acting by the largely Japanese cast is uniformly excellent. The story is necessarily episodic in nature, and at times the director is uncharacteristically blunt in his staging. Letters… also lacks the scope and ultimately the closure of the earlier film. But taken together, the two films mark a tremendous achievement by a master filmmaker. It’s doubtful that any other living director could treat this topic with the same respect and artistry. Given the inexplicably poor performance of Flags of Our Fathers at the box office, Letters from Iwo Jima, already the recipient of several year-end awards, may still struggle to find an audience.

Credits

Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shidou Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Bando, Yuki Matsuzaki, Takashi Yamaguchi, Eijiro Ozaki, Nae, Nobumasa Sakagami, Lucas Elliot, Sonny Seiichi Saito.

Crew: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Iris Yamashita. Story by Iris Yamashita, Paul Haggis. Based on Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi; edited by Tsuyuko Yoshida. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg. Producer: Robert Lorenz. Executive producer: Paul Haggis. Director of photography: Tom Stern. Production designed by Henry Bumstead, James J. Murakami. Edited by Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach. Co-producer: Tim Moore. Visual effects supervisor, second unit director: Michael Owens. Costumes designed by Deborah Hopper. A Warner Bros. Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures presentation of a Malpaso/Amblin Entertainment production. In Japanese with English subtitles.

Warner Bros./Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/137 Mins./Rated R

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