Having looked at an American aspect of the battle of Iwo Jima with Flags of Our Fathers Clint now returns to the island for the second part of his double header. Moving away from the fractured narrative of Flags this is a far more conventional war movie. There are certain assumptions that an audience, perhaps without realizing it, are likely to bring to a movie about World War II. The combat picture has been a Hollywood staple for so long — since before the actual combat was over — that it can sometimes seem as if every possible story has already been told. Or else as if each individual story, from G.I. Joe to Private Ryan, is at bottom a variation on familiar themes: victory against the odds, brotherhood under fire, and sacrifice for a noble cause.
Letters From Iwo Jima observes the lives and deaths of Japanese soldiers in the battle for the island, similarly adheres to some of the conventions of the genre even as it quietly dismantles them. Eastwood unashamedly is attempting to make a Japanese film detailing the experiences of their servicemen on Iwo Jima. He does however sidestep the huge history of torture and genocide carries out in other parts of the pacific by the Japanese and remains solely focused on this one conflict.
Historians now estimate that 20,000 Japanese infantrymen defended Iwo Jima; with around 1,800 surviving. The Americans sent 77,000 Marines and nearly 100,000 total troops, of whom close to 7,000 died and almost 20,000 were wounded. The Japanese commander was Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, whose illustrated letters to his wife and children, recently unearthed on the island, were a source for Iris Yamashita’s script. Played by Ken Watanabe, Kuribayashi, who arrives on Iwo Jima with a pearl-handled Colt and fond memories of the years he spent in America before the war, is a dashing, cosmopolitan figure. He arouses a good deal of suspicion among the other officers for his modern ideas and for the kindness he sometimes displays toward the low-ranking soldiers.
The general is a practical man caught up in impossible circumstances, and Watanabe’s performance still holds up in being heartbreaking for his crisp, unsentimental dignity. Watanabe anchors the film allowing for other characters such as Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a guileless baker with no great desire to give his life for the glory of the nation; Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), who will settle for nothing else; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian who once hobnobbed with Mary Pickford to flourish in their own right.
It is the usual thing to use the word epic to describe a movie that deals with big battles, momentous historical events and large numbers of dead. Eastwood has been involved in plenty of war films previously but those was far more action. This epic is a dramatic masterpiece from Clint and may just be the best film he’s ever made to be honest. As in “Flags of Our Fathers,” nearly all the color has been drained from the images, a technique that makes the interiors of the caves and tunnels look like Rembrandt paintings. The anxious faces seem to glow in the shadows, illuminated by their own suffering. At other times, in the hard outdoor light, Tom Stern’s cinematography is as frank and solemn as a Mathew Brady photograph.
Watching Letters From Iwo Jima made me think that Flags was a kind of warm up for this greater and far more engaging second installment. But the decision to keep the narrative far more centered to one physical space does the film a world of good. Given the subject matter and the allowing for all Japanese dialogue this film had no chance of winning any major awards. Possibly the last great project Eastwood will ever undertake given his advancing years this dramatic WWII double header is a fantastic footnote to an epic career that has gone from the ridiculous to the sublime.