Letters from Iwo Jima was Clint Eastwood’s follow up to Flags of Our Fathers as told through the Japanese defender’s perspective. Ken Watanabe stars as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who was the man responsible for defending Iwo Jima from the American invasion. Kazunari Ninomiya stars as PFC. Saigo, a conscripted baker who doesn’t want to fight, and wants to return home to his wife and new child.
The film is told through a series of flash forwards and flashbacks such as Flags, and shows the struggle many Japanese soldiers faced while preparing the island for the upcoming invasion by the American Marines portrayed in the first film.
Letters From Iwo Jima is most noted for being the most realistic portrayal of Japanese combatants in a World War II before. Eastwood uses his direction to show a picture which shows the struggles the Japanese faced in preparing themselves for certain death. Of all the characters in the film, both Saigo (Ninomiya) and Kuribayashi (Watanabe) know that this is a fight that they can’t win.
When Kuribayashi arrives on Iwo he is amazed to see how unprepared his forces are in meeting the American threat. Kuribayashi begins transforming Mt. Suribachi into an impregnable fortress that will prove fatal for the American invaders. He also has his men prepare bunker complexes, pillboxes, blockhouses, and many earth covered structures to keep the Americans from gaining a foothold inland from the water’s edge.
The real focal point of the film is Saigo who is the real narrator of the film. Saigo wants to live and can’t conform like his fellow soldiers who he believes have been brainwashed into dying for the emperor. Saigo is an outcast and is ostracized by many officers, yet he also strikes an interest in the General who has crossed paths with Saigo on several occasions before and after the Marine invasion.
The film is chalk full of many disturbing scenes in which the Japanese soldiers wage banzai charges against the Americans and blow themselves up with grenades in order to die by the way of Bushido (the Japanese code of chivalry). Some of these scenes are extremely graphic and very disturbing to the viewer and for Saigo and a fellow soldier who shares his feelings toward army life and serving one’s country.
One of the most interesting characters of the film is Colonel/Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a former Olympic show jumper who has brought his prized horse with him to Iwo. Nishi and Kurbayashi have known one another for years and Nishi has joined the garrison as one of the general’s adjutants.
In one amazing scene, Nishi offers some of their limited supply of morphine to an injured Marine who was taken prisoner. The Marine is shocked to find that Nishi speaks English fluently and lived in Los Angeles for many years as an Olympic equestrian and socialite with many Hollywood stars. The scene works well to show the humanity between both men on opposing sides during war. Nishi is a Japanese officer who fights for his country but doesn’t fight with the tenacity like so many diehards that take their own life in honor of their emperor who will never know about their sacrifice on this tiny stretch of volcanic rock.
Letters From Iwo Jima was an even bigger success than Flags of Our Fathers, which didn’t make as much money as Hollywood intended. Critics praised the film for its honesty and its top notch directing from Eastwood. The film opened to great praise in Japan from critics and Japanese audience members who enjoyed the film’s portrayal of the Japanese defenders.
Earlier films portrayed Japanese soldiers as stereotypical old Hollywood propaganda types who were evil and incapable of understanding the ways of their enemies. The film also shows the balance between good and evil, which is something that you don’t often see in a war film with the exception of The Thin Red Line in which good and evil exists in nature too.
In order to be considered for the 79th annual Academy Awards, Letters From Iwo Jima premiered in the U.S. two months after Flags on December 20th 2006. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards and Eastwood was slated for a Best Director win for this wonderful continuation of one of the war’s most critical battles.
Letters From Iwo Jima is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc through Warner Bros. Home Video and is available for instant streaming through Netflix on demand.