This is the second of Clint Eastwood’s complementary films dramatizing the costly island battle of 1945; it’s told from the Japanese perspective just as “Flag of Our Fathers” viewed it from the American side. Each of the pictures is actually strengthened by the other, but while “Flag” was a solid piece, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the better of the two.
That’s mostly the result of the fact that while the first installment did an exceptional job of depicting the amphibious assault against an entrenched and determined opposition, it melded the battle footage with an uneven account of how the victory was used for political purposes back home, using three supposed survivors from the immediately iconic flag-raising photo to raise funds in a war bonds campaign. And by showing us the future lives of the men, it diluted the intensity of its campaign recreation in crafting its poignant message about the sad impact of the experience on those who’d participated in it.
Of necessity “Letters” is more concentrated–it can’t move forward in time to dramatize the later lives of Japanese combatants, simply because so very few of them survived. (It uses flashbacks to provide background on some of the characters, but their employment is relatively sparing.) But that fact alone gives the film greater dramatic power. And the decision to keep the dialogue in Japanese, with subtitles, not only adds to the authentic feel, but mitigates any potentially mawkish moments.
The script, fashioned by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis from a book of letters penned by the Japanese commander, obviously must have involved a good deal of imaginative reconstruction, but as drama it works quite well. It centers on four of the defenders, two in the upper ranks and two at the lowest end of the spectrum. The most notable of the first two is General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, familiar from “The Last Samurai”), who’s assigned to mount a last-ditch resistance to the American assault despite the fact that, with the imperial forces collapsing throughout the Pacific, it’s virtually a suicide mission. A principled man who’s studied in the United States, Kuribayashi is presented as a strategic innovator who won’t tolerate mistreatment of the common soldiers but is still devoted to a rigid code of obedience and unswerving loyalty to his superiors. He quickly connects with one of his officers, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a flamboyant cavalryman who was a prize-winning horseman at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, and whose English is quite good and sense of honor even more developed.
At the other extreme is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker drafted away from his wife and never having seen his recently-born daughter. A fresh-faced, ingenuous and sweet-tempered fellow, he’s also cannily aware and ever so slightly rebellious–a sort of Good Soldier Schweik in the Pacific, whose perspective the audience inevitably embraces. His ultimate companion is a reserved, suspicious newcomer named Shimizu (Ryo Kase), whom his comrades initially suspect of being a spy for the military police but who we eventually learn actually has a very different history.
What should be clear from this lineup of “leads,” as it were, is that Eastwood presents the Japanese for the most part in a very sympathetic light, as men dedicated to their country and its defense, of course, but also acutely aware of the onus that’s been put on them and remarkably ecumenical in their concern for their fellow soldiers. There are, of course, arrogant, even bestial individuals to be found among the defenders, but they’re ordinarily kept off to the side. The best evidence of this is provided by a comparison of the two major episodes in which American soldiers are directly confronted. In the one, played quite quickly in shadow, a GI is brutally bayoneted to death by a pack of angry Japanese. But in the other, much more extended, episode, a wounded Oklahoman named Sam (Lucas Elliott) is treated at Nishi’s order, and the two converse in a friendly fashion until the young man dies. And after his death, Nishi translates a letter the soldier’s been carrying from his mother, which shows to the assembled troops that the enemy isn’t demonic, as their nation’s propaganda suggests, but as human as they. Eastwood’s purpose, as in the earlier film, which showed the use–or abuse–of the three survivors by the American government, is obviously to demonstrate how, on the other side, men were similarly being treated as pawns by their country, in an even more hopeless cause. And there’s one point at which the two films suddenly converge, and here too it’s the cruel absurdity of war that’s emphasized: it comes when some of the Japanese see the Americans hoisting the flag atop the fallen Mount Suribachi–the moment that becomes the ironic centerpiece of the first film–only to dismiss it as trivial and unimportant. The feeling of the world being turned upside down is inescapable, and the sense of loss on both sides is made cruelly palpable, especially when one watches the two films together, as Eastwood clearly intends.
In terms of sheer craftsmanship, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is beautifully made, with elegant cinematography, almost entirely deprived of color, by Tom Stern, a carefully-gauged production design by the great Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami, and exquisite lighting. But though the purely physical side of things is expertly rendered, it’s the human element that dominates the film, and rightly so. All the principals are excellent, with Watanabe, drawing a finely shaded portrait of the commander, and Ninomiya, the perfect everyman, particularly standing out. And, of course, one has to give special credit to the director for his skill in working so well with a script in a language not his own.
“Letters from Iwo Jima,” particularly when taken in tandem with “Flag of Our Fathers,” represents a serious and sensitive epic on the real nature of war–not as some strategic game but as a devastating human experience. And it will help to remind Americans at a particularly crucial moment in their history of what the Japanese learn in the course of the story–that one’s battlefield enemies aren’t monsters, but men and women like ourselves–something combatants in all wars are rather too quick to forget.