The Japanese soldiers we initially meet in Clint Eastwood's World War II film Letters from Iwo Jima (nominated this year for a best picture Oscar) are doing menial tasks and complaining about their assignment on Iwo Jima, a black-sand, edge-of-the-world outcropping that hardly seems worth fighting for. One soldier comments, "The Americans can have it."
But Iwo Jima is considered sacred ground, Japanese soil even at a far remove from the main island chain. Army general Tadamichi Kuribayashi flies in to take command of the island and prepare the soldiers for a defensive stand against the approaching Americans. The normal arc for a movie like this would be how the general whips this group of ragtag, grumbling soldiers into glorious martyrs. This is not that movie.
Letters From Iwo Jima deploys war-movie clichés that American audiences will instantly recognize but uses them to explore war from the perspective of soldiers on the opposite side of an American war. Camp talk is the same in any language, as are military politics, inefficiency, and overbearing sergeants. Regardless of nationality, soldiers' thoughts are on families back home and domestic duties left undone.
Letters from Iwo Jima is the companion piece to Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, released a few months ago. Each film takes the perspective of a different side of the battle, Letters following the Japanese as they try to defend the island. For each film, that perspective means not giving much screen time to the enemy. This turns the war inward, making the films not so much about battlefield tactics as what war does to men. In the Americans' case, as portrayed in Flags of Our Fathers, the survivors live to see psychological damage worm its rotting way through their lives. In the Japanese case, no such luxury is given.
Brilliantly, Letters becomes a horror movie for a while, with Americans as monsters stalking the cornered soldiers in claustrophobic caves, the bomb blasts on the surface the footsteps of the awakened American military giant.
Letters avoids showing the battle damage inflicted on Americans. Eastwood anticipates -- probably correctly -- the difficulty American audiences would have seeing American soldiers die. But it's here that I find the biggest flaw in the film: In an otherwise unquestionably anti-war movie, where an American director forces audiences to look through the eyes of the enemy, Eastwood stops short of truly pounding his point home. He got me identifying with the Japanese; he didn't force me to feel queasy for pulling for the Japanese over Americans as they kill the invaders.
Ken Watanabe stars and cuts an impressive figure as General Kuribayashi. It's easy to imagine Watanabe as a regular in Akira Kurosawa's company of actors, a bridge between the world-weary thoughtfulness of Takashi Shimura and the emotional abandon of Toshirô Mifune.
Kazunari Ninomiya co-stars as Saigo, one of those complaining soldiers whose thoughts are with his wife and newborn baby back home. He acts as an audience stand-in, a witness to the unspeakable acts called honor in the tunnels beneath Iwo Jima. The soldiers' code requires that they die, either at their enemy's hands or their own, for their families and for their principles.
Eastwood skewers such sensibilities. The truly noble perish "with regret." Eastwood finds honor in life rather than death.
Letters From Iwo Jima