A film review by Craig J. Koban



2006, R, 140 mins.

Gen. Kuribayashi: Ken Watanabe / Saigo: Kazunari Ninomiya / Baron Nishi: Tsuyoshi Ihara / Shimizu: Ryo Kase / Lt. Ito: Shidou Nakamura

Directed by Clint Eastwood /  Written by Iris Yamashita, based on Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi

In Japanese with English subtitles

"The battle is approaching its end. Since the enemy’s landing, even the gods would weep at the bravery of the officers and men under my command...."

- Japanese General Kuribayashi

in a radio message to Imperial Japanese Army during the Battle of Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood – without a shadow of a doubt – is one of the cinema’s most admired and respected of filmmakers. 

I guess that is why I found his FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS disappointing as a somewhat misguided work that lacked a bit of the 76-year-old’s trademark discipline.  The film was a fiercely ambitious look at how the American Government mythologized the famous portrait of US soldiers raising their country’s flag at Iwo Jima (as taken by Joe Rosenthal) in 1945.  It was arguably the most famous photo ever taken and Eastwood (alongside co-writer Paul Haggis and Executive Producer Steven Spielberg) explored how governmental stooges in Washington milked the image for everything it was worth (and for what it was not worth) in an effort to make heroes into those that may not have deserved it and to help rally the country in the war effort.

FLAGS had something legitimate to say and – for the most part – Eastwood and company were successful at showcasing how three soldiers in particular became instant celebrities for their “brave actions” at Iwo Jima and how each one dealt with their new-found hero status.  FLAGS was a rare war film in the way that its combat was not the primary element of the film; it was the psychological war on the home front, where the so-called heroes are paraded around from one cocktail party and rally to another.  They were posters boys for patriotism and valor, even when – in reality – there were countless others that made deeper sacrifices at Iwo Jima. 

The problem with FLAGS was not from a thematic perspective.  Eastwood crafted an endlessly provocative film that attempted to de-mystify an historical event that far too many have held in high regard.  That’s commendable.  Yet, the real flaw of FLAGS was in terms of its narrative flow and sloppy transitions.  The film could have benefited from a more linear story structure and could have been a much more leaner and tighter film if it did not feel the need to segue back and forth from the past the present.  It was also marred by a few needless tertiary subplots.  It was, as I described in my review, a “narrative jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces that are forced to fit together.”

Because of my disappointment with FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, it was with great eagerness that I approached its companion film, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA.  Eastwood filmed both FLAGS and LETTERS back-to-back and always envisioned them complimenting one another in an effort to provide the viewer with the most complete portrayal of one of the most famous battles in war history.  By the director’s own admission, LETTERS was not always a film that was designed to be made at all and it was only while making FLAGS that he realized that there was a larger story to tell than just the American experience.  As is often the case with films about WWII, the enemies that the Allies fought were faceless.  We never got to know them.  They were – even to an extent in Eastwood’s own FLAGS – anonymous men that were evil and were prey to American rifle fire.

In many ways, LETTERS represents a desire to address this deficiency that has plagued countless other war films.  Yet, the very noble approach to the subject matter is also what makes LETTERS an oddly ironic film.  If anything, LETTERS is arguably the first film to be told overwhelmingly from the Japanese perspective.  The film is almost entirely filmed with Japanese actors speaking in their foreign tongue (alongside Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO, it is 2006’s other foreign language film directed by an English speaking Hollywood filmmaker) and approaches the battle of Iwo Jima entirely from their eyes.  Interestingly, the Americans become the “faceless” and vile enemies that are ripe for the kill.  It’s a curious role reversal – the enemies in FLAGS are now the humanized and sympathetic heroes in LETTERS.  They most certainly were "heroes" if you consider the terrible odds they faced.  They would have to battle 100,000 American troops without air or naval support.  There was only 20,000 of them.  Many of them fought until the end; only 296 surendered.

This, of course, begs the question: does LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA paradoxically suffer from the same problems that has impeded Westernized and American-centric portrayals of the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima?  American films about WWII have been criticized for a lack of focus on the Japanese prerogative of the events.  FLAGS OF FATHERS is kind of guilty of this as well, albeit to a smaller degree.  Now comes LETTERS, which sort of repeats the same mistake.  In its case, it squarely deals with the Japanese perspective and puts Yankee viewpoints to the background.  Now, both films, it could be said, should be viewed as companion pieces to the other.  Yet, one has to consider how strong and powerful a single, three hour-plus WWII epic could have been if it combined the best of FLAGS and the best of LETTERS.  Strangely enough, segregating the two films apart from one another sort of stunts their overall effectiveness as individual works.

However, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is still a daring and challenging war film that dives into territory other American directors have never dared to cross.  The film certainly represents Eastwood’s most bold and concentrated effort: a film – all performed in Japanese with English subtitles – about the Japanese experience awaiting the attack of American forces during the early months of 1945 at Iwo Jima.  Even more crucial is the way Eastwood is able to take its foreign elements and infuse familiarity into them.  Clearly, this is not a red, white, and blue look at WWII.  This is from the lenses of those that have been the “enemy” and – by showing them at their most dire and vulnerable - we see the most basic elements of human nature at play.  LETTERS could be the first WWII film to make us completely sympathize with and relate to the Japanese.

Ethnicity is almost secondary to the film; we can see ourselves in these soldiers.  It certainly is hard not to see the futility of their plight.  Past war films have showcased the Japanese as being stern, remorseless, and invincible enemies.  Much like how FLAGS was a revisionist look at a misconceived war photo, LETTERS attempts to infuse truth into the typical Japanese soldier.  These men were fierce and determined warriors, but they were far from being invulnerable. 

Oftentimes they are short on food, water, ammunition and even more so on optimism.  A few of the soldiers speak of going AWOL and abandoning their posts, seeing that hope is lost.  It sure seems that they have no chance of winning the battle.  They are unable to get reinforcements, their gear and communications devices are broken, they have no air cover, and oftentimes the men can’t even be relayed orders to on the field.  The Japanese were not as powerful as many past films highlighted them as being.  LETTERS also indirectly ponders a great what-if scenario: if the Japanese were better equipped and prepared, would the Americans have succeeded?  LETTERS does not spend too much time dealing with such questions, but they linger in the background.

LETTERS – unlike FLAGS – takes place almost exclusively at Iwo Jima.  It begins several months before the conflict in late 1944, during which time General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (the great Ken Watanabe) arrives.  The Japanese seem clear that this will be an inevitable target of the Americans, so it is up the general and company to make suitable arrangements for its defense.  The general makes quick and abrupt changes to the work already put in place before his arrival.  Most crucially, he takes artillery off of the beaches and deploys them to higher ground (a smart move, in some respects) and gets soldiers to dig a series of tunnels in the mountain to shield them from enemy fire from ground and air.  Some sees the general’s new tactics as foolhardy.

His story is offset by several other stories of the men that fought.  We get a grunt’s POV in the form of a simple solider Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) who relays in sad letters to his wife back home that they dig holes for the men to fight and eventually die in.  To a large degree, it is this character that is the most crucial to the film’s ability to re-evaluate the Japanese solider in WWII.  Like many American soldiers (both in the past and today) he rigidly questions his country’s involvement in what he sees as a suicide mission.  He also physically looks so baby-faced and innocent that his visage alone cracks the stereotype of the grim and remorseless Japanese fighter.

Perhaps the most fascinating persona in the film is Baron Nishi (played very well by Tsuyoshi Ihara) who was an Olympic equestrian hero that partied with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks in Hollywood before war broke out.  He comes to the island almost as an icon of American vigor and heroism (he gallops on the sands with his champion horse as a morale booster).  He is involved in the film’s best scene where he strikes up a conversation with a young wounded American soldier that they have captured.  Instead of killing the lad, he orders him to be taken care of.  Baron is friendly to the US grunt, shakes his hand, and wins him over with stories of having dinner with Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.  It's one of the rarest instances of a WWII film having a thoughtful exchange between an American and Japanese soldier in the middle of battle.

LETTERS is on its most assured footing when it deals with these expendable Japanese soldiers and the code of honor that many of them are forced to live by.  In some instances – as is the case with one grizzly and unforgettable moment – suicide is more honorable than getting killed by American soldiers, and we see teary-eyed Japanese men literally grenade themselves to death in fear of being captured or killed.  The most shocking element of the film is the fierce pride that the Japanese have.  Some would rather die under their own hands instead of by those of the enemy.  It’s also interesting how Eastwood indirectly makes analogies to modern American military campaigns.  Like in Iraq, the Japanese are a lot whose morale is low and have very little support from the homeland.  They are fighting a psychological war as well.

The battle scenes – as with FLAGS – are bloody and messy, and Eastwood and his special effects crew create some memorable images of the American invasion (however, many memorable shots from FLAGS are reinserted back into LETTERS, and a bit too obviously).  Eastwood’s other aesthetic choices are intriguing, like filming LETTERS in close-to black and white (seemingly all color is washed out of the film, to perhaps increase the darkness and ambivalence of the time and battles).  Most of the action occurs less on the battlefield and more in the desolate caves, which Eastwood gives the rightful amount of eerie atmosphere and chilling foreboding.

Character development in LETTERS is a step above FLAGS, perhaps because the film focuses a bit more on the players and a little less so on the mayhem and battle action.  The performances also are an overall marked improvement, with Ken Watanabe leading the charge as the calculating and always commanding Kuribayashi.  He is not one of those typical emotionless military heads; he too has a life and family and yearns for an end to the war, even when he realizes that his death seems like a foregone conclusion.  Also powerful was the work of Tsuyoshi Ihara as the Olympic hero and Kazunari Ninomiya as the meager- mannered soldier.  The three strong performances here help augment the film’s more dense and layered focus.

There are a few instances where LETTERS follows FLAGS’ path by jumping into flashbacks and then flash forwards back to the present.  There are decent scenes where we see the general dine with American dignitaries far before war between the two nations erupted, as well as other moments of the family pre-war lives of soldiers.  As with FLAGS, these scenes seem kind of haphazardly edited in at incorrect times of the film, which often abruptly affects the narrative flow of the piece.  Also, LETTERS needlessly is bookended by a redundant little subplot of modern excavators going through the Japanese tunnels.  Unfortunately, LETTERS uses the same awkward flashback structure and unnecessary plot elements that FLAGS used, but thankfully to less severe effect.  At 141 minutes, LETTERS could have been a more balanced and structured film that did not feel long to sit through.

In direct comparison to its companion film, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, Clint Eastwood's LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA suffers from a few of the same faults (unnecessary narrative segues and redundant storylines), but on the whole it is a noticeable improvement in terms of having the understanding and wisdom to focus its story on the most forgotten soldiers of the battle of Iwo Jima: the Japanese.  As a stirring and intoxicating war-role-reversal film, LETTERS dares to make tough concessions by dealing with personas that have oftentimes been considered evil and despicable enemies in too many past WWII films.  It is LETTERS’ strongly humanized portrayal of the Japanese warriors that allows it to stand far apart from other war films, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS included.  Both films wisely reminds the viewer that – yes – there were nearly 7000 US men that lost there lives at the Battle of Iwo Jima, but there were also nearly 20,000 Japanese casualties.  At its weakest, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA lacks discipline (as did FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS), but while directing comparing the two works, it stands apart from FLAGS as the stronger film.  To their ultimate credit, both films take fully entrenched, preconceived notions about WWII’s famous battle and turns them upside down with a fresh perspective, and only a veteran talent like Eastwood could have had the foresight to attempt it. 


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