“Flags of our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”, both directed by Eastwood, tell a similar story from two different points of view. “Flags” presents the American experience on the island and the aftermath of their victory there on the lives of three soldiers involved in the battle. “Letters” presents the Japanese side of the story, almost entirely centered on the island, before and during the legendary battle. “Letters from Iwo Jima”, the better of the two films, has just been released for a limited run, to qualify for Academy Award consideration, before rolling out to the rest of the country.
But before we talk about “Letters from Iwo Jima”, a little history… No, not that kind of history, movie history. “Flags of Our Fathers” was released in mid-October, to “Begin the Oscar Season”. While it received some good reviews, the film didn’t do that well at the box office and faded quickly. Because the film was released so early, it is now in danger of fading from the public’s awareness and the awareness of the people who vote for the Oscars. This state of affairs prompted Warner Bros. and DreamWorks to move the release date of “Letters from Iwo Jima” up to December 20. It was originally scheduled to be released next February or March. The move seems to have worked. Both films are listed on many critics’ Top Ten Lists and Eastwood has received two Golden Globe nominations as director, one for each film. In all likelihood, he will probably earn a Best Director nomination for “Flags”.
All of that history aside, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the better film. Following a group of Japanese soldiers as they prepare this small island to meet the inevitable American attack, their new leader, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, “The Last Samurai”) arrives and realizes they are fortifying the wrong area. As soon as the Americans land, they will overrun the trenches the soldiers are building on the beach. Kuribayashi has other plans. They will build tunnels in the mountain on the island, move their equipment there and be in a better position to fight off the enemy, to protect the island and guard the path to Japan. With the inevitable support from the mainland, they will surely be victorious. As soon as Kuribayashi arrives, he watches a superior beating two of his men for unpatriotic statements. One of these men, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), was not overly thrilled to receive his draft notice and leave his wife and unborn child behind, but he works hard on the horrible island like everyone else. As soon as Kuribayashi stops the beating, he becomes a mentor for young Saigo and the men seem connected throughout. A surprise air attack signals the beginning of the American attack and the soldiers hold out for as long as possible.
As always, Clint Eastwood does a remarkable job of bringing this large scale event back to life. But “Letters” is a very different film from “Flags”. “Flags” dealt more with the aftermath of the battle, the emotional costs on the lives of three of the men credited with raising the American flag at Iwo Jima. “Letters” deals with the battle, because of course there is no “aftermath” to this battle for the Japanese.
The viewpoint of “Letters” is very different, but Eastwood also uses a fairly stark monochromatic look for the film, painting almost every image in shades of black, white and brown. As the story progresses, the occasional explosion, burst of fire or splatter of blood provide the only other bursts of color throughout. This helps to set the mood as these soldiers are camped out on an island of black rock, with very little vegetation growing anywhere. Once they move into the caves, they see little else other than their uniforms or more rock.
Eastwood uses a familiar technique, which he seems very fond of, to set up the story. As in many of his other directorial efforts, he book ends the main film with sequences set in modern day. In “Flags”, one of the character’s sons became interested in his dad’s involvement in Iwo Jima and starts to write a book about it, leading to the flashbacks. In “The Bridges of Madison County”, two adult kids learn their mother had a passionate affair with a photographer from National Geographic when they discover her love letters. As they read the letters, flashback. In “Letters”, a team of archaeologists travels to the island and starts to root around in the cave. Soon, one of the men finds something and they uncover a buried bundle of letters, leading to flashbacks and the story. In “Letters” this idea is less successful and almost superfluous, providing a clunky way of getting us into the story.
Because “Letters” is told from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldiers and focuses almost exclusively on the preparations for and the battle itself, the film takes a much more in depth look at the reality of war. We watch as they prepare for the battle and witness their dedication to serving their country; they are extremely dedicated and this leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the film. If the film is accurate, these men were so dedicated to the idea of bravery and honor, defeat and capture were not options and considered harmful to your honor, that faced with the eminent threat of capture, many of the men commit suicide in a particularly horrible way.
Ken Watanabe turns in another memorable performance as General Kuribayashi. From the onset, the men recognize he is going to be a different commander and he ruffles some feathers with his new ideas. He is dedicated to the cause, but he doesn’t believe in the brutality so readily accepted by his officers and the other men. His ideas on military strategy are also different and some of the older officers in his command don’t adapt so easily.
Throughout the film, Watanabe reveals the different, sometimes conflicting aspects of the General’s character. A devoted family man, he realizes his destiny is to serve and fight for his country. A long term military man, he also has compassion for the soldiers, but also recognizes he may need them as his ranks dwindle so why abuse them. As the attack happens, he continues to write letters to his wife even though she will certainly never receive them. They help to calm him, center him, and give him a respite from the rest of the horrors of the day.
The other main character in the film is Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya. He is also very good and shows a wide range of emotion as his character witnesses one act of horror after another. By the end of the film, he is a changed man, no longer smiling, dreading the thought of dying in this horrible place.
As our method of entry into the action and the story, “Letters” attempts to place Saigo in the middle of the action all the time. To accomplish this, the filmmakers come up with some creative ways for him to get out of one scrape after another; he escapes an order to commit suicide, an attack by American soldiers and other potential problems. Unfortunately, this is more than a little implausible and stretches the believability of the story almost to the breaking point. How does this little wisp of a guy suddenly turn into Rambo? Okay, that’s going a bit far, but he is a baker by trade and seems extremely lucky during this lengthy, exhaustive battle. Ultimately, this makes the film seem a little unnatural, the action too convenient. Rather than simply follow a handful of characters, Saigo enters one chamber of the cave system after another, coming into contact with them. This allows us to catch up with these characters, but the film would be more effective if these moments were more fluid.
As “Letters” follows the Japanese perspective of this battle, it makes sense that the film is in Japanese with English subtitles. There was a trend a few years ago to present subtitles in yellow, making them easier to read. In “Letters” the subtitles are white. As the film is predominantly black, white and brown, some of these subtitles are downright impossible to read. I would venture to guess Eastwood didn’t want yellow subtitles screwing up the aesthetic of the film. But we’ve got to be able to understand the film, Clint.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” is a very good film, and a good companion piece to Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers”. But it isn’t a perfect film; the few problems with the narrative and the subtitles detract from the fine performance from Watanabe and Eastwood’s directorial efforts. Ultimately, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the better of the two films, but neither will be considered as the director’s best films.