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Letters from Iwo Jima. Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, and Ryo Kase star in a film written by Iris Yamashita, based on the book by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido, and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

Letters from Iwo Jima may be the season’s prime example of an old adage: Some of the greatest art sneaks in through the side door. Clint Eastwood was going about his business as a bonafide Great American Director, making Flags of Our Fathers, a probing saga of the American GI side of the pivotal Iwo Jima battle. A late-breaking notion led him to make a companion film from the perspective of hapless Japanese soldiers consigned to suicide missions in the face of superior American military might.

Eastwood’s double-header project is a brave, unprecedented, and ultimately beautiful gesture, especially given the unexpectedly potent results. Flags was a fascinating twist on the war film genre; Letters is an even stronger, disarmingly powerful masterpiece. The most prominent theme is that war is not only definitively hellish, but that bellicosity is a multi-sided thing. Letters to and from home convey the same love and wishes, no matter what side a soldier is on.

Some of the film’s power lies in its fierce, unflinching focus and its location on the bleak hunk of rock where blood is spilled and the Japanese forces wither. It’s almost darkly minimalist in feel — often hunkered down in claustrophobic tunnels or in embattled open spaces — with occasional flashbacks to flesh out emotional back story.

Tellingly, the film stock looks washed out, halfway between black and white and color, with red bursts of blood, fire, and the rising sun on the Japanese flag. We’re drawn into the empathetic side of the story through a commander (Ken Watanabe), a wise former Olympic horse jumper (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and a young baker-turned-soldier (Kazunari Ninomiya) who questions his role and resists the Japanese code of death with honor, even if that means a hand grenade to the belly.

Noble and artistically sturdy qualities grace Eastwood’s remarkable film, comparable to the legacy of Great War films such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Sam Fuller’s A-grade B-movies from the front. By the end, its messages, relevant today more than ever, ring true: War is patently evil and absurd, and humanity is far more connected than it realizes.

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