Related Articles: Movies, All

Letters From Iwo Jima

The Eastwood Film to See This Year

Directed by Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River), Letters From Iwo Jima presents the same events covered in Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood’s paean to American heroism during the Battle for Iwo Jima, a key WWII battle, but from the Japanese perspective.

Filmed back-to-back and released only months apart, Letters From Iwo Jima is everything Flags of Our Fathers promised to be but wasn’t, a cliché-free film that explored different aspects of heroism during World War II. Luckily for moviegoers, few, if any of the unexpected slip-ups Eastwood made in Flags of Our Fathers are evident in Letters From Iwo Jima.

By 1944, the Japanese has steadily lost ground to the United States military, island by island, fighting tenaciously, often to the last man. Iwo Jima, an eight-square mile Japanese island, holds both symbolic and strategic importance to Japan and strategic importance the United States. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a brilliant, if unorthodox, tactician, arrives on Iwo Jima to take control of the island’s defenses.

Kuribayashi orders the men under his command to build a vast network of caves and man-made tunnels, centered on Mt. Suribachi, the focal point for any attack by the United States. Kuribayashi harbors little belief that his outmanned, outgunned, and underfed army can defeat the superior American military. Holding the island as long as possible and delaying the invasion of mainland Japan is the best Kuribayashi and his men can hope for.

Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker-turned-soldier who has little stomach for fighting, questions the reasons for continuing a war Japan can’t possibly win, and dreams of returning to his wife, Hanako (Nae Yuuki). Another soldier, an ex-military policeman, Shimizu (Ryo Kase), has been sent to Iwo Jima as punishment for a random act of compassion. Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian champion, accepts his role in the war stoically, but believes in a flexible honor code that leaves space for compassion. Not so for Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura), an authoritarian officer who believes unquestioningly in a military code that dictates that soldiers either die in battle for country and honor or, if facing capture by the enemy, commit suicide.

Eastwood’s multi-decade career as a filmmaker has been defined by a scrupulous attention to craft and emotional and visual restraint. At least that much was expected when word leaked out that Eastwood’s next directing gigs would be Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Expectations were high that Eastwood would deliver a refreshing, unique take on World War II. Unfortunately, the end result was Saving Private Ryan: The Pacific Theater Edition and Eastwood’s direction could be charitably described as Spielberg-lite. Paul Haggis’ screenplay for Flags of Our Fathers was filled with clichés. Luckily, Letters From Iwo Jima is a return to form for Eastwood.

Letters From Iwo Jima succeeds dramatically and emotionally primarily because Eastwood and his screenwriter this time around, Iris Yamashita, weren’t constrained by the conventions of the Hollywood war genre that celebrate heroism and nationalism-flavored patriotism. Eastwood also didn’t have Haggis on hand to sentimentalize the soldiers’ experiences or underline themes via redundant dialogue (a Haggis specialty). By following characters from different social classes and military ranks, Letters From Iwo Jima humanizes (perhaps too much) the Japanese characters without sentimentalizing them or their culture, which proves to be less monolithic than presumed.

The Battle for Iwo Jima ended after 40 days. Only 1 in 20 Japanese soldiers survived. Those who survived the battle returned to a defeated, exhausted country mired in despair at losing a war they once thought winnable. There was no heroes’ welcome for them. The men here, like elsewhere, had sacrificed their lives for closely held ideals, for their friends and companions, or simply, for the right to return home to their families. Letters From Iwo Jima serves their memory remarkably well.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars