Letters from Iwo Jima
Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Iris Yamashita

Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya


Letters from Iwo Jima

When Clint Eastwood was making his film "Flags of our Fathers," about the battle for Iwo Jima in World War II, he serendipitously thought of making a second film, a kind of obverse of the first, from the Japanese side. He commissioned a writer and came up with "Letters from Iwo Jima," based on some of what's known about the Japanese general Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who commanded the defense, and on some unsent letters to home by the soldiers who held the island. The result is a film that is, surprising to me, strangely and unexpectedly, almost a gentle and loving presentation of life when confronted with almost certain death.

There is battle footage to be sure, and there are the conflicts between rabid, kamikaze officers and General Kuribayashi, and there is the classic figure of the foot soldier, a baker with a wife and child, who just wants to go home, named Saigo and played with understated pain by Kazunari Ninomiya. The film seems to take Eastwood back to his days as a Western star, because in a sense "Letters from Iwo Jima" is an almost classic Western. A besieged fortress - in this case the island - is commanded by a martinet who wants, stupidly, to set his defenses out in the open on the beaches that the Americans will land on. When General Kuribayashi - played with great charisma by Ken Watanabe - arrives, he sees that the only defense is to dig out caves and tunnels in the cliffs that overlook the beach, place his troops and guns there and hope only to cost the Americans enough casualties to stop them.

Interspersed with these preparations, and then with the battle for the island, are the letters - from Kuribayashi, who lived in the United States ten years earlier - and from Saigo, to his wife. The letters are a counterpoint to the action, and help to ground the film as more than just a shootout or a Japanese version of the Alamo. Almost all of the film is shot in and around the caves and tunnels that the Japanese carved out for their defense, and almost all is in a desaturated black and white, punctuated only by the red and yellow flashes of guns and the red of bloody wounds. Since we already know the outcome of the battle, Eastwood's job is to make his story compelling enough to hold us for his film's two-hour and twenty-minute running time. He succeeds, but I think just barely. In a way there isn't enough of Kuribayashi's planning for the defense of the island, nor of his background, in Japan and the United States, though we do see him in a flashback to California ten years before, being honored and presented with a classic Colt pistol as a memento of his stay there.

The film carries us from moment to moment as the American forces take the island and the Japanese are forced back; the convention of refusing to surrender and dying for the glory of the Emperor is fascinating but never explained or set in context; I think it's a weakness in the film. If we compare it to its sibling, "Flags of our Fathers," that film had the virtue of being about human beings and their lives, rather than being confined to the island, and for me it emerges as a deeper experience than this one.