“Letters From Iwo Jima” is the companion piece to “Flags Of Our Fathers”. But make no mistake, you do not have to have seen one to enjoy the other. “Letters” is the stronger of the two films. This is a dark and brooding film about what it is like to be facing imminent death. Knowing that you can not win but fighting and dying for honour. This is the battle for Iwo Jima from the losing perspective.
Ken Watanabe is General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the man assigned to defend the island by training a rag tag infantry that is insanely ill-equipped to fend off an invading force. His plan is to dig tunnels under the island, to surprise and ambush the Americans. But he is no fool. He knows that the odds are not in their favour.
The rest of the cast are unknowns who give some of the best performances of the year. Each man has his own story on how he arrived on this island. One involves a former government police man who was reassigned after refusing to murder a poor families dog. Another man was taken from his wife and his unborn child. We even get glimpses of Kuribayashi’s history as well. Turns out he spent some time in America, and has fond memories of riding in automobiles. This is the achievement of Eastwood’s film. It manages to put a human face on the Japanese troops, as opposed to the other film, which portrays them as the faceless enemy.
The first act of the movie depicts these men as they work in the mud, fight dysentery, barely eat or drink, and talk about home. The second act is when the battle starts. Their strategy is to let the American’s fill up the beach, before they begin to attack. Once the battle starts it is clear who is going to win. But the Japanese will fight to the death because that is what they have been taught. When it is clear they will lose, one of the commanders orders his troops to commit suicide in the name of their country. This is one of the most harrowing scenes as each soldier pulls the pin on his grenade, blowing themselves to pieces.
The last act involves one of the soldiers burying the letters that they have written during their time on the island, as well as Kuribayashi’s final moments. This is powerful cinema, and shows yet again, that Eastwood has come in to his own. He has a steady hand and is in no rush to tell his story. Clocking in a two hours and twenty minutes, this is like a countdown in hell. What is most amazing is that Eastwood can direct an entire film in a foreign language and still manage to create something authentic and real.It is rare today to see a movie about a battle from the losing end. Especially about a foreign people told from the perspective of an American. This is a strong and powerful film that will be remembered come awards time