With a skillful stroke of originality, Clint Eastwood made two films, back to back, each dealing with a different side of the same historic battle. His previous Flags of Our Fathers addressed the battle of Iwo Jima from the American perspective, in particular the people and circumstances surrounding that famous photograph. In his latest film, Letters From Iwo Jima, which is aptly seen as a companion piece to Flags, Eastwood goes into the tunnels with the Japanese soldiers, presenting the battle from their perspective. Letters is the superior film, though such an assertion is perhaps misguided . This is not a sequel, nor are these two films which offer diametrically opposing viewpoints. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin.
Flags of Our Fathers explored the nature of heroism, the concept of patriotism, and the efficacy of war propaganda. Letters From Iwo Jima delves into the same themes more profoundly. Dreadfully bereft of supplies and underfed, the Japanese soldiers dig in and anxiously await the arrival of the American troops on the island. Iwo Jima represents the first patch of Japanese homeland vulnerable to the enemy, so a loss here would be emotionally scarring. Many of the Japanese soldiers suffer from dysentery. Few of them know that much of their navy and air fleet have been destroyed and that no help is coming from the mainland.
Most of them do know that the oncoming Americans greatly outnumber them and have impressive support from the air and the sea. Victory appears realistic however, because they have been taught, from the beginning of the war, that Americans are lazy and weak. They fight too emotionally and they are savages. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who lived briefly in the U.S. and befriended quite a few Americans, knows better. He is played with gentle poise by Ken Watanabe, who first won over western audiences in Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003). General Kuribayashi realizes that an improbable victory on Iwo Jima is possible only through superior strategy and the prudent utilization of his men.
American patriotism as presented in Flags was a contrived one, well intentioned but based on half-truths. The Japanese patriotism presented in Letters is a forced one, based on honour, but also on fear and coercion. Even if the lazy Americans prove too numerous to defeat, the greatest honour for a Japanese solider is to die in defence of the Empire. Even if all hope of survival vanishes, a Japanese soldier should take down as many of the enemy troops with him as he can. Furthermore, they prefer suicide to surrender.
Some buy into these notions whole-heartedly. Others, like the simple baker, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) not so much. He loves his country but he also loves his wife and baby daughter whom he has never met because of the war. Ninomiya, a member of the Japanese pop group Arashi demonstrates that he has a future on the big screen. This is his fourth film, the first to play widely to an international audience. His portrayal of Saigo rings true and elicits sympathy without pity. Also of note in the cast is Tsuyoshi Ihara as Baron Nishi, a soldier who also made many American friends when he won a gold medal in equestrian riding at the Olympics in Los Angeles.
The cleverly shot battle scenes contain discrete moments of thorough gruesomeness but this is not overdone. In Flags, the combat segments were presented in a washed out picture, with emphasized blue and black hues. Similar scenes in Letters are even more stark with greens and grays predominating. Sometimes it almost seems as if the film were shot in black-and-white, with only the faintest hints of color appearing here and there; and then a bomb explodes and a bright red fire leaps forth with startling crispness. Perhaps the film-makers are trying to say that however dismal the battle may have seemed to the Americans, it was even more bleak for their enemy. Whatever the reason for this visual style, it is undoubtedly worthy of note.
Eastwood began shooting Letters immediately after wrapping on Flags. No overt narrative connection exists between this film and its predecessor, though we may get a glimpse of what exactly happened to Jamie Bell’s character from Flags. It is no small achievement that such a prototypically American director succeeded in producing a film that appealed to the Japanese; and that a film with an almost solely Asian cast and almost entirely in Japanese, was so well received in America. Just about every scene contains clear reminders both of how different and of how similar East and West are. The eastern culture seems so remote from our own in a scene where the Japanese are methodically killing themselves to avoid surrender — until we see the frightened, hesitant faces of some of these soldiers.
Like its predecessor, Letters From Iwo Jima raises interesting questions about heroism without definitively answering them. Is it always heroic to die for one’s country or one’s beliefs? How far should a soldier, of any culture, push this? Even when escape is possible? Even when surrender is an option? All the way to the point of suicide? (Of course, this last question is not even raised in the West). Perhaps, when defeat in the battle is inevitable, it is more heroic to escape and fight another day. When escape is not possible, perhaps it is more heroic to surrender and return to one’s family and vocation in life. Ultimately, the film bemoans the senseless waste of life, unavoidable in any war, and leaves it at that.
In my review for Flags of Our Fathers I mentioned that I was looking forward to more quality work from Clint Eastwood. How briefly I had to wait.
Justin Myers is a film reviewer and teacher of Latin and Greek in the Washington DC area.