Letters from Iwo Jima is the fourth consecutive cinema masterpiece from veteran director Clint Eastwood and his second tour de force film of the year. By looking at the events of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective rather than the American side he depicted in the also brilliant Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood crafts a companion film that wildly exceeds its predecessor.
Flags dealt with the complexities of heroism in the eyes of the American cultural and championed humanity over idealized infamy. Letters similarly dissects cultural perceptions by tackling the intricacies of the Japanese notion of honor with respect to the code of dignity that required soldiers who had failed in combat to give their own lives. It's not a safe or flowery depiction of this Japanese tradition either. In one of the most startling and unforgettable scenes in any movie this year, we witness first hand what it is like to see your friends and allies kill themselves violently one by one and be called upon to do the same.
Letters bleeds to its core, providing a darker and more evocative take on the notorious events of that battle. It juggles leaner, faster, and more vivid action sequences with a more harrowing dramatic narrative and even more thematic complexities. Eastwood never settles himself neatly into a clear cut corner. In both Flags and Letters, every scene comes filled with ambiguities. Nothing is simplified here and it is this painful true-to-life murky sense of morality that makes these films so wonderful. Eastwood has literally salvaged the war epic as a genre by stripping away the conventional glamorized one-sided format and introducing such an unsettling sense of messiness and imperfection. Simply by choosing to tell both sides of the story, he is reminding the viewer that the enemies in Flags are not monsters just as their American enemies in Letters are not monsters. He draws lines between the cultures and creates scenes of eerie tension by flashing back to the past lives of these characters, reminding us that they too are hard working family men. In one remarkably unsettling scene we see the General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, (Ken Watanabe) sharing a meal with the American military during a pre-war visit to the country. “So,” says a general’s wife, “If you went to war with America would you shoot my husband?” This scene embodies the sentiment of the film: people are people and they can share meals and bridge cultures, but when in war they define each other as soulless beasts. Why can they not also extend humanity then? Why does life lose its meaning at these times?
Watanabe outdoes his Oscar nominated breakthrough role in The Last Samurai here with a wonderfully restrained performance as the stern but affable leader of the Japanese forces. He’s quite nearly exceeded by relative unknown Kazunari Ninomiya as Saigo, a sensitive soul who wants to live and return home to his family despite what the Japanese code of honor may say.
More than anything, Eastwood has used these Iwo Jima films as a template to celebrate and explore humanity in all of its splendor and all of its grief. People are complicated and flawed and these films go to great lengths to depict these flaws without disrespecting the people. Eastwood shows the utmost respect to the soldiers, but seems cautious of the demands put upon them by their respective nations. He stresses that amidst the publicity and the war maneuvers, people forget all too often that they are dealing with real human beings. So often war films feel torn from pages of history books, but this one is based quite literally and the thoughts and words of the soldiers. It stems from their letters and their feelings. It escapes the filter of society’s watchful eye and tells with honesty and purity what these people really went through with no agenda in sight.