Letters From Iwo Jima

Unique Perspective on Famous Offensive

Earlier this year Clint Eastwood directed Flags of Our Fathers, a WWII drama that focused on several soldiers and how they fit into the famous photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. Now comes Letters from Iwo Jima, also from Eastwood, that tells the story of the Japanese soldiers involved in that very same battle. It’s a very refreshing change, not only due to the altering of perspective, but simply because it’s a much better film.

It’s 1945, and U.S. forces are closing in on the strategically important island of Iwo Jima. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is put in charge of defending it from the massive assault by the Americans. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker drafted into service, is one of the many who feel they will never see their families again. All have vowed to fight to the death to protect the Empire--whether it be at the hands of the enemy or their own.

The first thing that jumps out at you in this movie is that these are all Japanese actors, speaking in their native language. Letters is subtitled, which makes for a more real experience, despite the fact that you have to drop your eyes to the bottom of the screen to read what everyone is saying. You get used to it quick, so don’t let this keep you from seeing the movie--you’ll be missing out.

Watanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha) is his usual powerhouse self, being firm and demanding when called to rally the troops, but is soft and understated when he needs to be. This is a complex man who wants so desperately to beat back the attack, despite the overwhelming odds. He also cares about his men, and would rather see them fall back and regroup rather then kill themselves in ritual suicide, something his officers don’t understand.

The young Ninomiya is equally as good, as the counterpoint to the General. He just wants to go home and reunite with his wife and daughter (whom he’s never seen). He’s a terrible soldier, but a compassionate man. It’s him who we relate to and really care for. He’s us.

As with all war films of late, Letters is pretty gory, but doesn’t linger on it. In one horrific scene, Saigo’s platoon is falsely told they are to kill themselves, which most of them do--with hand grenades.

There are also effective quiet moments that convey the idea that the Japanese soldiers were very similar to their American counterparts. When a letter from a dead American’s mother is read by a bilingual officer to his men, it’s clear that the letter could have been for any of them.

Letters from Iwo Jima is good movie from Clint Eastwood, far more focused and well executed than his sister film, Flags of Our Fathers. It’s a rare look from the eyes of those who were more like us than we may have ever imagined.