(R) Four stars
During the long battle for the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima in 1945, over 100,000 U.S. troops were deployed in 880 ships. Nearly 7,000 of them died.
On the Japanese side, 20,000 soldiers were assigned to defend the island and only 1,000 of them survived. A few months ago, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers examined the American side of the conflict, focusing largely on the iconic photo of soldiers erecting a flag on the Pacific isle.
In his gripping companion film, Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood looks at the legendary battle from the other side’s point of view, in Japanese with subtitles. As with Flags, Letters is presented mostly in black and white. Aside from flashbacks, about the only colors shown are the shades of red in the flashes of weapons.
In large part, Flags of Our Fathers dealt with the propaganda machine, as the government used some of the soldiers from the flag-raising to increase sales of war bonds. Unfortunately, the movie makes its point about midway through, resulting in a mostly redundant second half.
Letters From Iwo Jima is a reminder that, regardless of the issues involved in a war, the vast majority of the forces on both sides are just soldiers doing their jobs and dreaming of returning home. This film deals with men stuck in a particularly horrific situation. They are greatly outnumbered, reinforcements are not on the way and their assigned task is to die with honor, taking down 10 soldiers before they perish.
The man issuing that grim order is Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, played quite well by Ken Watanabe (The Last Samaurai). A strong, but refined man who studied in America, he uses his knowledge of U.S. military strategy to prolong the fight over the last stepping stone to the Imperial homeland. After a tour of the island shortly after his arrival, he changes almost everything, greatly frustrating the other officers. Miles of tunnels are constructed as part of his plan to most effectively ambush the enemy.
The enemy, of course, is America and how odd it is to watch a sympathetic portrayal of people trying to kill our grandfathers. It works because Eastwood focuses on the common humanity of soldiers. The screenplay, derived in part from a book of letters from Kuribayashi to his family as well as letters from young soldiers found buried on the island decades later, employs flashbacks to tell the stories of a select few soldiers. The device is overused, but still effective, especially in the case of Saigo, played by pop singer Kazunari Ninomiya, a baker desperate to return to his wife and newborn daughter.
Aside from an unconvincing scene where several Japanese soldiers get misty while reading a letter to a U.S. soldier from his mother, Letters From Iwo Jima manages to be touching while remaining reserved. The culture of the fighting men is alien — particularly in its celebration of suicide — but the expressions on their faces are universal.