Once again, Clint Eastwood has ended the year with a bang — in this case, a literal, explosive one. Letters From Iwo Jima, which tells the story of the battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who fought and fell, bookends Eastwood’s American perspective, Flags of Our Fathers, which was released earlier this fall. Where Flags was a fitting tribute, it was pedestrian and narratively clunky. Letters, on the other hand, transcends potential hindrances (it has almost no name stars and is almost entirely delivered in Japanese) to prove itself soaring and heroic.
Eastwood blends the vivid imagery of violence with the quiet poetry of what remains unsaid, the traits that earned best picture Oscars for his Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. Ultimately, what Eastwood has done is remarkable because it is so simple: it is the rare example of someone from one country empathizing with the enemy. And by showing that the Japanese soldiers who fought were in so many ways like the American ones, young men with homes and careers, wives and children, fighting a futile war out of piety, both sides truly were the same.
Letters, in ways more intimate than the more broad-minded Flags did, cuts through the propaganda to show that the Japanese men who fought were themselves divided amongst one another, and conflicted within themselves. Iris Yamashita wrote the screenplay with help from Paul Haggis, who adapted Flags and Baby, based on letters written by the soldiers. These letters, of course, never made it off the island, but were only discovered decades later, as portrayed in the film’s opening and closing moments.
Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (an astonishing Ken Watanabe), a former chief of the Imperial Guard, comes to Iwo Jima to prepare his soldiers for American conflict. Kuribayashi is disciplined but reasonable; in an early scene he resolves to punish two soldiers not by abuse, but in a more humane way: depriving them of a meal. He also proves to be a bit of a renegade, opting not for beachhead defenses, but instead ordering the construction of caves and tunnels from which his army can battle their foes.
America, we learn, was not always considered an enemy to these men. Both Kuribayashi and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) have spent time in America; the former as an officer, and the latter as an equestrian in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Two other soldiers also form a bond, though one at the bottom end of the totem pole. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is ostensibly the film’s protagonist, a young baker whose wife gave birth to a daughter after he was conscripted. He befriends Shimizu (Ryo Kase), whose past behavior has gotten him stationed on the island. Eastwood puts his audience right there in those caves with the soldiers, enduring their meager living conditions while waiting for attack. Hope for help is futile. There is neither navy nor any reserves. Though a suicide mission, most understand their duty and suffer in silence. One of several particularly harrowing sequences depicts a group of traditional soldiers using hand grenades to take their own life. Clearly, Letters is an unflinching look.
He also offers an alternate look. One of the biggest blows to the Japanese is when Mount Suribachi falls, and Eastwood shows the famous symbolic flag-raising from the perspective of the other side. Afterward, as more and more of the separated soldiers fall, a schism develops between Kuribayashi and Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura). Watanabe conveys an enormity by doing so little: compassion, cleverness, bravery, appreciation, humility, rationality. His still waters run immensely deep. Kazunari offers a stark contrast as the more naïve, emotional younger soldier. The attention to detail also should be noted behind the camera; Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami’s production design and Tom Stern’s cinematography take Eastwood’s audience to a time and place none of them have ever been.
And Eastwood shows why one no one ever should.