“Letters From Iwo Jima” represents something rare in the history of war movies — a case of a filmmaker from one country sympathetically telling a combat story from the perspective of a former enemy. The second installment in Clint Eastwood’s ambitious and enterprising account of one of the Pacific war’s most ferocious conflicts, the film is the stylistic twin of “Flags of Our Fathers” but different in feel due to its intimacy, concentrated focus and, inevitably, the nature of its Japanese military characters. Well received at its premiere in Japan, where it opens Dec. 9, this piercing, astutely judged picture faces limited commercial prospects due to its Japanese-language dialogue alone. But after the more respectful than passionate critical response to “Flags,” which has fallen short of B.O. expectations, “Letters” may well fire Eastwood’s many partisans with renewed vigor, spelling sustained biz on select screens.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” was about Germans in World War I, but from a pacifist p.o.v.; “Tora! Tora! Tora!” included the Japanese angle on Pearl Harbor; the central characters in “The Blue Max” and “Cross of Iron” were Germans. Scattered other examples certainly exist. All the same, there are few moments in Hollywood cinema of any era as oddly unsettling as the one here, in which an American Marine charges toward the protagonists and is so manifestly perceived as the enemy.
That unfortunate young man is bayonetted to death by his Japanese captors. But the film’s true intent comes across the second time a Yank is nabbed by the doomed members of the Imperial Army, when the injured grunt movingly establishes an unlikely bond with his aristocratic Japanese interrogator. There were compelling reasons why the war was fought, but the unusual focus of “Letters” is the humanity of the Japanese soldiers who longed for home just like anyone else, knowing they would never leave the tiny strip of land alive.
Naturally, U.S. war films of the era painted the Japanese as the most maniacal and barbaric of fighters, and many veterans and historians, Americans, Chinese and others, insist this was true. Pic might have done well to mention the emperor’s endorsement of the “Death Before Surrender” edict of early 1945. But “Letters” makes the case that even the Japanese were divided among themselves.
“There’s nothing sacred about this island,” says one heretical conscript. “The Americans can have it.” The official line was that the invaders were weak-willed and undisciplined, but two of the top Japanese officers depicted here had spent time in the U.S. before the war, liked the country and had friends there. To echo the primary theme of “Flags,” nothing is as clear-cut as it seems; the situation is never as black-and-white as any side’s propaganda would have it.Considered from the Japanese angle, Iwo Jima resembles the Alamo, a futile if heroic last stand against an enemy force too overwhelming to withstand, although withstand it they did, for much longer than their opponents imagined possible.
Elegantly but with dramatic bite, Eastwood unfolds the story of some of the men who put up the resilient fight, emphasizing the way their personalities were expressed through crisis rather than ideology or stock notions of bravery and heroics. Screenplay by first-timer Iris Yamashita, a Japanese-American who worked out the story with “Flags” scenarist Paul Haggis, maintains an intimate focus within a grand context, and is based on sentiments expressed in long-dead soldiers’ letters seen at the outset being dug up on Iwo Jima.
Initial stretch provides an opportunity to paint a more detailed portrait than “Flags” could of the desolation of the 5 mile by 2½-mile strip of black volcanic rock and sand. In the wilting summer before the invasion, the assembled Japanese troops were scraping by with no resources. Rescuing them from torpor and the savage punishments of severe officers is Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the impressive former chief of the Imperial Guard sent to prepare the island for the anticipated American assault.
Within the limits of a tradition defined by loyalty and obedience, Kuribayashi is his own man. Taking the measure of the inhospitable bit of real estate on extensive walks, he undercuts by-the-book officers, to their fury, and soon has a weary, ineffectual admiral sent home. Whereas the Japanese customarily believed in beachhead defenses, the new general orders the construction of miles of tunnels and caves from which his 20,000 men can most advantageously battle the arriving Americans.
Kuribayashi quickly befriends the dashing Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an aristocrat with a meager supply of Johnnie Walker. The shared scotch serves as a reminder of the America they both know personally; Kuribayashi was there as a student and young officer, Nishi as an equestrian at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Their quiet moments to converse are privileged ones, especially in light of what lies ahead.
At the opposite end of the hierarchy are Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker and mildly impudent everyman who longs only to see his infant daughter, and the sensitive Shimizu (Ryo Kase), whose shortcomings as an MP have earned him this lamentable posting. With rabid exceptions, the Japanese here are dedicated, ready to kill the enemy and resigned to whatever their fates may be, even as they may have mixed minds about fighting and mostly wish they were somewhere else.
Their hideaways secure, the men wait and wait some more. Suffering from centipedes, a steady diet of weed soup and bad water, one soldier quips, “We’ll be dead before the Americans get here.” And there’s nothing but bad news from the outside world, as their navy is wiped out and hoped-for reserves won’t be arriving after all. Finally, with the U.S. fleet on its way from Saipan, Kuribayashi levels with his men: They should not expect to survive, but must each endeavor to kill at least 10 of the enemy before dying themselves.
Battle commences an hour in, and the general’s tactics immediately prove their worth, as the Americans sustain heavy losses as they swarm the beach. But in a particularly disturbing interlude, in one cave a group of ultra-traditionalists decide to “die with honor.”
In due course, Mount Suribachi is taken, and this time Eastwood hauntingly offers the historic flag-raising from the Japanese perspective at the opposite end of the island. With troops separated in different locations, a festering split in the Japanese command bursts, and one particularly fanatical officer, Lt. Ito (Shidou Nakamura), goes his own way in defiance of Kuribayashi. Deterioration of the Japanese position is slow but inevitable.
An artier,more impressionistic approach might have emphasized the unbearable psychological pressure induced by prolonged confinement, deprivation and bombardment. The claustrophobic element is obviously mandatory, but Eastwood allows the film to breathe by moving the action around in space and time, combined with the engaging characters who occupy centerstage.
A man of his time but with a refinement that suggests an earlier era, Kuribayashi is the sort of man any army would want to have in charge. In Watanabe’s beautifully nuanced performance, he is smart, cunning and imaginative, always several steps ahead in his thinking and therefore never ruffled. His composure in the face of certain doom is remarkable, his fate an expression of both his love of country and his broader sense of himself as a man of honor and arms.
Ihara is a treat as the bon vivant whose sense of style isn’t impaired even by hell on earth, while Kazunari offers a lively, easily accessible commoner whose emotions are simple and direct.
Due partly to the preponderance of dark interiors, “Letters” seems even more like a black-and-white film than did “Flags,” the color in Tom Stern’s strongly composed lensing drained nearly to the vanishing point. One panoramic shot of the American fleet aside, CGI work seems minimal here, as a bit of location footage from the island itself has b
een discreetly amplified by stand-in landscapes shot in California, with a little work in Japan to top it off. The superbly varied interiors represent the final work of the late, great production designer Henry Bumstead, along with James J. Murakami. Regular Eastwood editor Joel Cox was here partnered with Gary D. Roach. Spare score this time was composed not by the director, but by son Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens.
Possibly the one thing missing from this microcosmic look at an epochal battle is the bigger picture, a sense of the staggering slaughter that took place over a six-week period at a cost of 26,000 lives. “Flags” imparted something of an idea of this, although not in its totality and certainly not for the Japanese, of whom only 216 survived. Taken together, “Flags” and “Letters” represent a genuinely imposing achievement, one that looks at war unflinchingly — that does not deny its necessity but above all laments the human loss it entails.