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.