As a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima inevitably shares many of its predecessor’s thematic concerns. Assuming the Japanese’s perspective on the 36-day battle for the black sand-shored titular island, the second component of Eastwood’s WWII doubleheader—subtitled in Japanese, and reportedly sped into theaters ahead of its projected 2007 release to help bolster Flags’ waning award-season prospects—is another rumination on the nature of wartime courage and heroism that’s distrustful of the bureaucratic military machine and interested in the intimate individual experiences of those who fought and perished in the critical conflict. Detailing the efforts of General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) to rally his outnumbered military forces for a futile defense against the American invaders, the film, in ways both subtle and forthright, reflects the concerns of its Allied Forces-focused forerunner, as it investigates the empirical chasms separating on-the-ground grunts and on-high officials, the socioeconomic divides found within regimens, and the cultural and generational tensions that colored the campaign’s management and execution. When disillusioned Imperial soldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) has a letter for his wife edited by a postman who knows that its critical comments won’t ever make it past censors, Letters from Iwo Jima even slyly alludes to Flags’ portrait of the military’s systematic distortion and denial of wartime truths.
Nevertheless, whereas the two films’ similarities are numerous—also extending to their use of framing stories (here, Japanese archaeologists unearthing letters written by the fallen) and interest in self-sacrifice—it is Letters’ departures from its precursor that make it a superior, if still somewhat flawed, work. Adapted from Kuribayashi’s collection of correspondences Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Iris Yamashita (story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis), Eastwood’s latest historical saga more or less chronologically recounts the twin travails of Kuribayashi and Saigo, the former an iconoclast whose time spent in America gives him a personal insight into the enemy, and the latter a young husband and expectant father who, while digging beach trenches that may prove to be his grave, insubordinately proclaims that he’d just as soon hand the island over to the Americans. Throughout, the narrative’s fundamental discord between a soldier’s eagerness to adhere to traditional conceptions of honor and duty on the one hand, and a desire to practically assess and confront the current circumstances on the other hand, will play out both around and within these two men, their loyalty to country and custom complicated by their strategically rational and emotionally selfish and relentless survival instincts.
Rumored to have been given his unfavorable post only because another turned down the job, Kuribayashi arrives at Iwo Jima and immediately rankles the conformist officers under his command, his unconventional plan to concentrate troops not on the beachfront but on the mainland—and, specifically, in a series of tunnels he has dug into the landscape’s scraggly hills—foreshadowing his forthcoming refusal to accept hara kiri as an honorable response to defeat. By prizing tactical ingenuity over outmoded Bushido-era philosophies, Kuribayashi proves himself a modern thinker in a static intellectual environment, a state of mind uneasily allied with his desire, lamented upon while discussing his fondness for steed-mounted cavalry with former Olympic horse rider Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), for the “good old days.” Such a shaky equilibrium between modern and old-fashioned impulses doesn’t initially plague Saigo, who merely yearns for a way out of the impending clash. By the time desertion and surrender become viable options, however, the skeptical soldier comes to a minor revelation regarding the definition of “honor”—a term many of his superiors disgracefully wield as a blackmailing agent, but which he (as did Flags’ trio) eventually learns has to do with both judicious allegiance to the cause and selfless commitment to one’s comrades.
As Saigo, Ninomiya displays not only fine comedic instincts but also palpable fear and confusion in the face of war’s horrors, while Watanabe dramatizes his character’s inner struggle with regal dignity, lacing his commanding and quietly heroic portrayal with a sadness born from being deserted by one family (the military, which fails/refuses to provide air and sea support) and the knowledge that he’ll never see his other, flesh-and-blood one. Alas, both performances are occasionally undercut by Yamashita’s scripting, which commences with deft lucidity but, as the sappy flashbacks (replete with narration taken from various men’s letters home) and edifying conversations mount, slowly reveals the lack of subtlety that’s become Haggis’s signature. Rigidly patriotic Shimizu (Ryô Kase), a member of the elitist Kempeitai military police unit, is looked upon suspiciously and disdainfully by his new cohorts, yet the best the film can do to resolve this class hierarchy-infused friction is a simplistic memory scene in which he’s shown to actually be the kind of noble, stand-up guy who wouldn’t comply with orders to shoot an innocent dog. Such crudity intermittently substitutes for nuanced drama, as with General Kuribayashi’s recollection of a U.S. state dinner that’s full of statements-of-theme, or as when Shimizu’s realization that Americans aren’t “cowards” and “savages”—and, in fact, are very much like himself—is articulated in the most aggravatingly obvious language possible.
Although American soldiers are largely faceless in Letters (as were the Japanese in Flags), the idea that the two sides’ soldiers were kindred spirits—young, scared, desperate to reunite with families, and used as pawns in service of a larger cause—permeates the proceedings. It’s a notion rooted in Eastwood’s humanism, but despite being true on an individual—if not political—level, the sentiment is sporadically handled with clumsiness, epitomized by Nishi’s rescue of a wounded American fighter named Sam (Lucas Elliott). After giving the Yank his squadron’s final doses of morphine, Nishi and Sam convivially chat about Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (whom the Japanese Olympian once had over for dinner), their shared interests a lesson in cross-cultural resemblance that becomes more blunt when, later on, a note written to Sam by his mother is read aloud to a group of Japanese soldiers, their slack-jawed faces—and the ensuing epiphany it sparks in Shimizu—inelegantly making clear the film’s “we’re all alike inside” ethos. Especially given that the omnipresent specter of Flags makes such points implicit, the screenplay’s devotion to communicating its opinions first softly and again, in the third-act, explicitly results in hints of the didacticism that bogged down Flags.
At what point do these shortcomings, frequently attributed to Haggis, ultimately also partially fall on the shoulders of Eastwood, who has now collaborated with the Crash filmmaker on three projects in three years? The director’s choreography of both battlefield chaos and quiet, reflective moments have a workmanlike polish that’s aided by his funereal theme music and Tom Stern’s near-black-and-white cinematography (splashed with yellow fireballs and crimson blood), the latter of which—as with a nocturnal skirmish in which Americans and Japanese appear as indistinguishable silhouettes, or in the visual contrast of Kuribayashi’s Colt .45 with his officers’ samurai swords—wordlessly conveys his tale’s overriding preoccupations. Beautiful compositions such as one of fighter jets showering a hillside with bombs are the rule rather than the exception, but Eastwood is also prone to indulge in corniness like a slow-mo image of letters sadly floating to the ground, or, after a Japanese combatant is seen clutching family photos in the seconds before blowing himself up with a grenade, a superfluous pan to the man’s severed hand still clutching said snapshots. While nothing in Letters approaches Flags’ groan-worthy present-day segments, Eastwood’s solemn sentimentality sometimes borders on triteness, even though his stately mise-en-scène is more apt to overshadow Haggis’s one-dimensional characterizations and moralizing scenarios than it is to amplify them.
Yet in spite of its cases of explanatory handholding, there remains a stirring potency to Letters’ exploration of loyalty, responsibility, and nobility. Eastwood’s charcoal-colored aesthetic casts a pall of doom over his story’s ill-fated protagonists, as well as visually complements his tale’s belief in the falsity of black-and-white worldviews. And via Kuribayashi’s ideological clash with Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura), what emerges is a stirring reversal of codified principles: Ito’s age-old conviction that it’s preferable to suffer a dignified death—by hopelessly charging into battle, or by actively committing suicide—than to retreat or be captured is cast as the height of spinelessness, while Saigo’s strategic withdrawals and climactic, meaningful (attempted) sacrifice stands as the epitome of bravery. That Ito, as the one man zealously committed to sacrificing his life, is denied death may be a bit of pat irony. But with a shot of Ito, having failed to use his body as a bomb, rising from the corpse-lined ground upon which he’d been nestled, his canteen dropping to the soil where it becomes lost amid those of his deceased compatriots, Eastwood artfully expresses how the antiquated code of honor to which the character (and, by extension, Japan) clings has made him as useless as the dead. It’s an instance of understated, eloquent grace, and as with Letters’ finest moments, one in which pure visual storytelling remains unsullied by subsequent expository reiteration.