Letters from Iwo Jima is the second installment of a two-part World War II project Clint Eastwood began with Flags of Our Fathers earlier this year. Both movies concern themselves with the battle for the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, only from different sides. Flags of Our Fathers is a time-jumbled account of the American soldiers who took the island, the media blitz that followed, and modern-day interview sequences. As the flipside, Letters from Iwo Jima is about the Japanese troops who tried to hold the land so that Allied forces couldn't turn it into a base of operations from which they could launch attacks on the Japanese mainland.
For as good as Flags of Our Fathers was, it did have its problems. The modern sequences featuring a veteran's son researching a book project about the Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph seemed superfluous and got overly mawkish in the final reel. Letters from Iwo Jima, on the other hand, is grim and flawless, keeping most of its action locked within the desolate landscape of the island and avoiding any weepy sentiment. (There is a framing sequence set in the present day, but it's mercifully brief.)
This isn't to say that it's not completely devoid of sentiment, because it does have its moments. The title is derived from a sparingly used narration device of having the Japanese soldiers read their letters to and from their family members. These missives work because the emotions are honest and Eastwood doesn't overplay them. The expressions are poetic for what they evoke--memories of love and melancholy examinations of past good times--rather than for any flowery language, and they fit the overall mood of the picture. Perhaps it's because he's dealing here with the side of the battle that loses that Eastwood approaches the material with a somber gentility. If Flags of Our Fathers was a tragedy on a personal scale, Letters from Iwo Jima is one of epic proportions. Very few of the boys are going to make it home, and they know it.
Letters from Iwo Jima deals primarily with two soldiers on opposite ends of the ranking scale. Saigo (played by Kazunari Ninomiya, a TV actor) is a lowly private who is the runt of his regiment. A baker who was forced to leave his wife and unborn child to go to Iwo Jima, he can't see the point in defending a lonely rock so far from home. Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) plays General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the last commander on the island, and when he first arrives on the beach, he sees Saigo being beaten by his superior officer for uttering unpatriotic statements. Kuribayashi stops the beating, establishing a connection between himself and the lowest man in his ranks and starting a pattern for their future encounters. Saigo is saddled with a duty he didn't ask for, and the General sees it as his counter duty to make sure he gets as many of his men off of Iwo Jima alive as possible. This doesn't sit well with all of the officers in his employ, who would rather see everyone die with honor than retreat. They don't see the value of living to fight another day.
Letters from Iwo Jima is told entirely from the Japanese perspective. The cast is almost entirely made up of Japanese actors speaking in their native tongue. We do see some of the American soldiers, but the interactions between the two sides on a one-on-one level are limited. None of these soldiers are characters from Flags, and I applaud Eastwood for avoiding any cutesy cameos or convenient crossovers. This might disappoint some, particularly those wondering about the fate of Iggy, Jamie Bell's character from the first movie, but I think having Ryan Phillippe suddenly stumble into a scene would have broken the mood by taking us out of the proper perspective.
Ken Watanabe is a remarkable screen presence. He reminds me of a classic matinee idol, and Eastwood has made up for Hollywood's indiscretions toward this fine actor by handing him the meatiest role of the movie. (I still can't forgive all involved for making him second fiddle to Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.) Kuribayashi was an intelligent leader who only saw value in strategic planning if the human factor was given the utmost importance. He spent some time in America, and while it makes his comrades suspicious that he may have detrimental sympathy for the enemy, it actually gives him greater insight into what he is up against. His letters to home are mainly to his young son, whom he wants to grow up to be a good man in his own right. Watanabe imbues the character with warmth and gravitas in equal measure. The film shows the General doodling in a pad while bombs drop all around, shaking the walls of the underground tunnels the Japanese are holed up in, and it's actually this picture journal that forms the basis of first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita's script.
To match the grim subject matter, Eastwood has given Letters from Iwo Jima a gray tint. The air around everyone looks as if it is heavy with clouds, and it makes it impossible to forget the fate that hangs over them. Yet, the movie never grows so heavy that it buckles under its own furrowed brow. This is because the director, like the General whose story he is telling, never forgets that his movie is about real people. For years, WWII movies have treated all of the soldiers from the Axis as evil monsters, forgetting that the ideologues and bureaucrats rarely occupy the trenches themselves. For once, we are reminded that regular men made up the Japanese army, ones with the same concerns, relationships, and fears as their American counterparts. Yes, this is a war movie, so there is plenty of fighting, often with very gory results, but Eastwood makes sure he has time to show General Kuribayashi sharing a drink with a sympathetic ally (Tsuyoshi Ihara, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe), Saigo swapping stories with his buddies, and even the soldiers laughing and speculating on the strange behavior of their superiors.
At the same time, Letters from Iwo Jima is no politically correct whitewash. Not every Japanese soldier is a saint. Some of them are cowards, and others are so devoted to an outmoded sense of honor, they prefer suicide to standing their ground. In many ways, Saigo faces more danger from members of his own army than he does the Allied forces running up the beach. With both Letters and Flags, Clint Eastwood has worked to demystify World War II. No longer is it possible to portray it as a simplistic conflict where the good side was very, very good and the bad side so very, very bad. Rather, war is complex, dirty, and for the men who do the fighting, it rarely has the clear outcome history memorializes.
By stepping out of the normal boundaries of WWII movie, Clint Eastwood has found something new to say on the subject. For those out there who ask why we need another movie about the conflict, Letters from Iwo Jima is your answer. It proves there is still much we have to learn, still stories that haven't been told. That it's done so well and by one of the finest and most daring filmmakers we have is just a bonus.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.