Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to Flags of our Fathers is a tighter, more intimate film, focusing on a more sharply drawn collection of characters and following their story in a more coherent way than the first film could manage.
Letters received a lot of attention for telling the story of the “other” side of the Battle of Iwo Jima, but I’m not sure this deserves as much credit as it has gotten for being daring and innovative. How long has it been since Japan was any kind of enemy of the United States? Also, how many movies have portrayed World War II from a German perspective? Das Boot, Cross of Iron and The Longest Day spring to mind. This movie isn’t so much daring as it is overdue.
Regardless, this film presents a multi-dimensional view of the Iwo Jima invasion through the eyes of a handful of Japanese officers and soldiers, mostly General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), commander of the Japanese force and Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker who left behind a pregnant wife when he was drafted into the army.
The movie begins with Kuribayashi’s arrival on the island, when he immediately throws out the initial plan to defend the beaches and orders his men to begin digging an elaborate network of cages. His plan meets with considerable resistance from the hardline officers, who distrust the general because he spent time in the United States and was educated in Canada. For his part, Saigo wonders aloud what about the desolate island makes it worth leaving behind a pregnant wife and possibly dying. His “treasonous” and “cowardly” thoughts get him in considerable trouble with his superiors and only Kuribayashi’s insistence that they need every possible able-bodied man keeps him from probably being beaten to death in punishment.
Saigo’s life is further complicated when a replacement soldier is suspected of being a member of the Kempeitei, the Japanese secret police, but all such concerns pale compared to the massive American force approaching the island. Iwo Jima is cut off from supplies and its air forces have been recalled to the Japanese home islands to defend against the B-29 fire bombings.
The combat action of Letters overlaps with Flags up through the fall of Mount Suribachi and is even more graphic and harrowing, probably because the cave-based defenses make the fighting that much more claustrophobic. We see the Japanese point-of-view on several events portrayed from the American perspective in the first film, especially the mass suicide by grenade by the last defenders of Surabachi.
The film’s strongest achievement is that it is able to draw a fairly broad cross section of characters, from the humanistic but still patriotic General Kuribayashi to the cynical pacifist in Private Saigo, and make them human and dimensional while not diminishing the brutality of a Japanese military tradition that gave no quarter and expected none.
The film does stumble at one point when Kuribayashi’s close friend, a former Olympic champion named Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), gently questions a wounded American Marine. When the prisoner dies, Nishi reads a letter to his mother in his pocket, which lets the Japanese soldiers see the man as just another soldier like them. While the point is valid, a filmmaker of Eastwood’s considerable gifts shouldn’t need to connect the dots as explicitly as he does here.
But that does not negate the film’s considerable accomplishments, presenting an empathetic view of the Japanese experience on Iwo Jima, without presenting a simplified view of its characters as westerners who just happen to speak Japanese.