|Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Ryo Kase, Tsuyoshi Ihara
Director: Clint Eastwood
When you think of Clint Eastwood, you don’t exactly think “foreign language film,” but we can all thank our lucky stars that the director decided to revisit the Battle of Iwo Jima with a story told from the Japanese perspective or he may have always been remembered for producing the incredibly mediocre “Flags of Our Fathers.” Eastwood’s follow-up to the WWII epic outshines its predecessor in every way – from the richer characters and stronger performances, to the more significant tale about a group of men who were more or less sentenced to death by their own country – and it only further proves why “Letters from Iwo Jima” is so worthy of being hailed as one of the year’s best.
After a group of present-day Japanese archeologists uncover a buried sack of letters while excavating the since-abandoned cave system created by the soldiers of Iwo Jima, the film leaps back into the past to tell of how they came to be written. In fact, it’s through the voice-over readings of these letters that the audience is first introduced to the story’s main characters: Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a humble baker forced to leave his pregnant wife to fight in the war; Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a member of the Kempeitai (the Japanese military police) sent to the unit for disobeying orders; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a former Olympic gold medalist-turned-tank commander; Lt. Ito (Shido Nakamura), a brash officer with a stern sense of national pride; and Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the commanding officer of the island whose highly-criticized defense strategy was perhaps the only reason Japan stood for as long as it did.
And while the audience is introduced to several other characters throughout the course of the film’s 141-minute runtime, these five men offer the most comprehensive range of perspective into the planning and eventual involvement in the 36-day battle. Each and every performance is beautifully acted, but it’s Watanabe and J-Pop star Ninomiya, in particular, who deliver award-worthy turns as, respectively, a man who would do anything for his country (despite being called unpatriotic) and another who observes the simple fact that he’s fighting in a war both countries want absolutely no part in.
Once again adopting the muted visual style that appears throughout the Iwo Jima-based sections of “Flags,” Eastwood has shaded “Letters” in an olive-brown hue that could very well pass for black-and-white. By doing so, the director makes a pretty bold statement on how he feels about the nature of war (which is to say that it’s not a very pretty thing) and takes it one step further by revealing some of the more horrible details of the skirmish. Perhaps most poignant of all is the disturbing fact that many Japanese soldiers committed suicide (banging their helmets with live grenades and them clenching them close to their bodies) only days into the war. The sequence lasts several minutes long, and it’s one of the most gut-wrenching cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen.
To call “Letters from Iwo Jima” a companion film to “Flags of Our Fathers” would be to disgrace the former film and absolve the latter, because while seeing “Flags” for a second time would most certainly make it look better, “Letters” is strong enough to stand on its own. Moreover, one could even argue that “Flags” was made for the simple fact that Eastwood would have never convinced studio heads to let him make a Japanese language film without first telling the American side of the tale. Whether or not this is true remains unknown, but does it really matter? “Letters from Iwo Jima” is yet another poetic stroke of brilliance on Eastwood’s long-standing canvas of cinematic brilliance.
Special Edition DVD Review:
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little disappointed with the two-disc special edition of “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and much for the same reason that was stated in my review of the new “Flags of Our Fathers” DVD: there’s no director commentary. Fortunately, Warner Brothers has done a decent job of compiling an hour or so of behind-the-scenes material that covers the making-of the film (“Red Sun, Black Sand”), cast discussions on their respective characters (“The Faces of Combat”), and footage from the 2006 World Premiere in Tokyo, Japan.