Letter from Iwo Jima (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Letters from Iwo Jima is a unique American-made war movie for at least two reasons: it depicts the battle from the perspective of the losers and it represents the United States as the "enemy." Coupled with Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima provides director Clint Eastwood's complete statement about the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima. Although Flags of Our Fathers deals as much with how a photograph from the battle was used as propaganda on the home front as it does with the actual combat, Letters from Iwo Jima remains entrenched upon the island from start to finish (except for a few character-building flashbacks). In terms of its structure, this is more what we expect from a war movie than what Flags of Our Fathers offers. The only character common to both films is the island's rough terrain.

The movie begins in late 1944, several months before the conflict, with the arrival of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) on Iwo Jima. The Japanese realize this will likely be an American target and they dispatch the general to ready the defenses. To this end, he re-deploys artillery from the beaches to the high ground and commissions a series of tunnels designed to protect from air attacks and connect various Japanese strong points. His tactics are scoffed at by some, who see them as cowardly, but applauded by others. As a counterpoint to the General's perspective, the movie provides the point-of-view of a common solider, Saigo (pop star Kazunari Ninomiya), who plays a more important role in events than one might initially suppose.

Although Eastwood does an adequate job of developing the characters into more than paper-thin soldiers, this isn't a character-based piece, and that limits its effectiveness. The movie fascinates because of the unusual rhythms it imparts to a familiar genre: the war film. The Japanese, for example, do not in general believe in surrender, so we know from the start that most of the people in this movie are going to be dead by the time the end credits roll. Instead of surrender, the Japanese options include suicide attacks and blowing themselves up with grenades. Both occur during the course of the movie. This is dying with honor. For many watching the film, the impulse will be to think "what a waste."

Previous movies about Iwo Jima have presented the Japanese as a faceless, implacable enemy. While they put up a stiff defense, they are not as invulnerable as they have been portrayed to be. They are short on men, food, water, and ammunition, are rejected by the mainland when they request reinforcements, and have no air cover. Much of their communications equipment is broken so in many cases the General has no way to reach his men in the field. Human messengers are unreliable; many never reach their destinations. The army is also rife with mutinous thoughts. Some sub-commanders, thinking Kuribayashi to be weak and pro-American (he spent time in the United States and is friendly with some American officers), ignore his orders to fall back and instead commit suicidal frontal attacks. In the end, the Japanese are almost wiped out, but they take a surprisingly large number of Americans with them. To the degree that Iwo Jima is costly to the United States, it is the result of Kuribayashi's strategies. Had he not been hampered by poor communications and recalcitrant officers, he might have done more damage.

Eastwood makes some interesting stylistic choices. Most of the movie is shot in near black-and-white. Occasional muted flashes of color can be observed, especially when there are explosions but, for the most part, the movie is monochromatic. This may be intended as an homage to older World War II movies or it may be an attempt at a pseudo-documentary approach. The battle sequences are effectively presented with good CGI and lots of explosions. There's plenty of gore, although the movie is less visceral than its companion piece. In Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood seems influenced by Saving Private Ryan. His approach to Letters from Iwo Jima is less bloody. (The black-and-white also defuses the impact of the viscera.) Actually, the movies doesn't show a lot of detailed battle action; it stays with the characters, many of whom don't see a lot of action.

The only actor likely to be familiar to American audiences is Ken Watanabe, who is perhaps best known from The Last Samurai. Watanabe exudes a calm, confident aura - perfect for a general who understands he will not survive this mission and has made peace with that fact. He has a job to do and intends to do it to the best of his ability. Before leaving his wife, he makes sure his affairs are in order. Oddly, the thing that worries him the most is not dying on Iwo Jima, but whether the kitchen floor will be finished. Watanabe's performance places Kuribayashi in good company amidst a large group of brilliant, effective cinematic generals whose on-screen portrayals don't overly exaggerate reality.

Another performer worth singling out is Kazunari Ninomiya, a popular Japanese singing star. Saigo is as far from the stereotype as any character in the film. American movies about World War II demonize the Germans and Japanese. Saigo, however, is just an ordinary guy who thinks the battles are pointless and wants to go home to be with his wife and newborn daughter. Ninomiya's performance brings out the human qualities of Saigo, making viewers reflect about how powerless the pawns are in any war.

Of the 100,000 U.S. troops that participated in the battle of Iwo Jima, nearly 7000 died and 20,000 were injured. The Japanese defenders numbered around 20,000 and only 1000 survived. Iwo Jima, because of its timing and publicity value more than its strategic importance, became one of the Pacific Theater's best known conflicts. With his two 2006 movies, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood has stripped away some of the misconceptions about the battle and provided new perspectives. Taken together, the films offer an imperfect but interesting interpretation of history. Of the two, the more straightforward and better focused Letters from Iwo Jima is the stronger movie.

Letter from Iwo Jima (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Genre: WAR
Subtitles: English subtitled Japanese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1