Letters from Iwo Jima is Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, the Battle of Iwo Jima told from the Japanese perspective, and after being disappointed by Flags I went into Letters with reservations. Fortunately, Letters is a much better film than Flags is, beautifully shot, well acted, and cogent even without speaking the language (the film is in Japanese, with subtitles). The movie is not emotionally devastating in the way that the best war movies are – I recommend the early Kubrick film Paths of Glory as an example of this – but as an unflinching portrayal of war and hopeless heroism it is supremely effective.
The film centers around the lives of a group of Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima before and during the battle, ranging from Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a former baker drafted into the Imperial Army, to Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the general in charge of defending the island. Told in part through the letters that each soldier writes and receives, the film hits every note on the emotional scale. Some characters are less likable than others, but ultimately they are sympathetic in one way or another – all human. From the first frame to the last, Eastwood’s Iwo Jima is a tragedy, and for the soldiers it is the end of their lives. The way that they come to terms with this (and in some cases don’t), more than the action of the battle, creates to central dramatic issue of the film. It’s long, and it takes some time to get going, but once it does Letters from Iwo Jima shows itself a formidable achievement.
The ensemble cast succeeds in making the movie, especially the more emotional parts, come together well; noteworthy are Shido Nakamura and Kazunari Ninomiya. Nakamura, who played a minor role in Jet Li’s Fearless, here portrays the fanatic Lieutenant Ito, a man whose obsession with his conception of honor leads him to increasingly foolish and untenable actions. He is an unsympathetic character, but a pitiable one, and Nakamura’s intensity in the role brings it off effectively. Ninomiva plays Saigo, the baker; he is a much quieter, everyday presence throughout the film, but he becomes the voice of the movie and the representative of the everyday man thrust into events beyond his control.
Still, Watanabe’s performance is the one to watch – as Kuribayashi he is by far the most interesting and charismatic character, and in the role he is exceptional. Eastwood makes a strong effort to show the effect of the conflict on men at every level of command, but with an actor like Watanabe there seems to be no need for this. Letters would have been better served if Eastwood had made it Kuribayashi’s story, letting the audience focus on the character that most demands its attention.
Lastly, I should say that this is not a film for the faint of heart – frequently bloody and often horrific in its portrayal of war, it pulls no punches and shies away from nothing. Eastwood’s cynicism comes through in every gunshot and every line; make no mistake that this is a very sad, very dark film. Yet Letters from Iwo Jima still accomplishes something remarkable and emerges, in the final twenty minutes, a film of immense skill and majesty that never quite becomes a masterpiece.
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