“Letters from Iwo Jima” is Clint Eastwood’s companion film to “Flags of Our Fathers”, which told the story of the flag raising at Iwo Jima that changed the face of the war entirely. This time around, Eastwood examines the war from the perspective of America’s enemy, the Japanese. In doing so, he manages to inspire sympathy and understanding. In many ways, it’s the better of the two films. “Letters” is mostly told from the perspective of a young soldier named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), whose indifference and general animosity towards the war helps reinforce the film’s anti-war agenda, which is simply that war can bring no good, no matter what the situation and regardless of who’s involved. Saigo’s main concern may not be for the war, but for the safety of his wife and unborn child. We see Saigo write endless letters to his wife, knowing that most of them will probably never reach her.
Saigo and his fellow troops are lead by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe). The general is a man who prides himself in honoring his country. While Kuribayahsi’s intelligence is what makes him a great general, it’s his selflessness that makes him a good man. Like Saigo, Kuribayashi finds comfort in writing home to his wife, expressing not his disdain for the war he is in the middle of but instead his concern for the type of everyday affairs that his wife and his lives would normally revolve around, such as remodeling their kitchen.
Ken Watanabe, who plays Kuribayashi, gives the best performance of his career in this role. He shows he has the ability to appear as a character rather than an actor playing a character. Ninomiya, who plays Saigo, also gives an outstanding performance, playing the fragile yet determined and dedicated Saigo.
As for the direction, Eastwood shows restraint and confidence, often letting the camera hold on the smooth, black sulfur terrain of the island; allowing our eyes to fixate on it, to dwell on the price of war. It’s the restraint that was missing from “Flags” that makes “Letters” so rich and riveting.
The writing, by newcomer Iris Yamashita, based on the book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido, is heartfelt, showing us a side of war we haven’t explored before.
Eastwood, who has now directed 28 films, has made quite a career for himself. In the past 3 years, he’s won two Oscars (both for “Million Dollar Baby”) and has received numerous accolades. He has become a master of cinema, allowing his talent to age with grace. Now, with “Letters”, there’s a good chance he’ll be accepting another Oscar to go along with the Golden Globe he’s already won for this powerful and introspective account of war.
Danny Gordon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.