In one of a number of haunting scenes in director Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, the odds finally seem to have caught up with the young baker-turned-soldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). Long set apart from his compatriots by his desire to live, he has snuck away to evade an order to commit suicide only to find himself staring down the barrel of his battalion-mate Shimizu’s rifle, desperately trying to explain his shirking of duty. By this point in Letters, it is abundantly clear that Eastwood and writer Iris Yamashita are aiming to show their audience the true nightmare of war, and they have succeeded admirably.
The plot of Letters is glaringly simple and eminently predictable for any student of history or tragedy. It is a tale of a group of Japanese soldiers charged with defending the small island of Iwo Jima, an isolated rock with the unfortunate distinction of being both a worthy air base for the Americans and the first part of the traditional Japanese homeland to be targeted for invasion. Every man on the isle knows that his task is impossible and doom is inevitable. All the characters fully expect to be killed, and as the movie moves through their preparations for battle and the American invasion itself, almost all of them are.
Yet Letters from Iwo Jima is much more than this simple storyline. It is an intimate portrait of the dangers of militarism, a cinematographic triumph, and a shining example of the “other side of the hill” family of war movies. But what makes Letters an instant classic of the anti-war genre are its vivid characters and its unflinching realism.
The film is packed with familiar archetypes with new life breathed into them. The unthinking drones Ito (Shido Nakamura) and Fujita (Hiroshi Watanabe), the reluctant but duty-bound Olympic hero Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and the penitence-driven Shimizu (Ryo Kase) all capture the audience’s attention. Ken Watanabe does an Oscar-worthy turn as General Kuribayashi, the real-life commander whose letters formed the basis for Yamashita’s script and gave the film its framing device. But Letters from Iwo Jima finds its true hero in Saigo, who is presented in the early reels as a bumbling, cowardly, unpatriotic malcontent, but who is quickly revealed to be the brightest and toughest of all the soldiers. He is determined to survive an unwinnable battle no matter what it says about his “honor.” Ninomiya plays the everyman role to the hilt, giving an incredibly complicated character the multi-dimensionality he deserves and providing a Japanese answer to All Quiet on the Western Front’s Paul Baumer. This pragmatist is charged with personifying the movie’s message and does so in unforgettable fashion as he answers Shimizu’s challenge: “There is no use for a dead soldier.”
Eastwood provides plenty of illustrations to support Saigo’s point. It is clear from the outset that Eastwood and Yamashita made gritty authenticity a priority in Letters. The use of dust-colored film filters and the refusal to shy away from the ordinary indignities of war—petty rivalries between army and navy officers, discipline problems in the ranks, a persistent epidemic of dysentery—lay bare the awful horrors soldiers face even before the onslaught.
As in life, when violence does come it comes without warning and with unspeakable gruesomeness. The atrocities depicted in Letters from Iwo Jima make Saving Private Ryan look like fun family fare. Those who manage to keep from weeping all the way through will witness an on-screen mass suicide by grenade, a man burning to death before their eyes, and severed limbs gushing blood, to name just a few of the more horrifying moments. It is shockingly brutal and remarkably effective. Combined with artful camerawork that frequently gives the audience a first-person perspective from behind and in front of the booming guns and shakes when mortar fire rocks the island, viewers truly believe they are standing side by side with Saigo and Kuribayashi as they march towards their fates. Eastwood and Yamashita put you in the war, make you see it and hear it without being able to separate yourself from it.
The film is not without flaws. At 140 unrelenting minutes, it strays as much as half an hour over the border between emotionally wrenching and simply exhausting, and the characters are brilliantly portrayed but frequently seem too many to follow. But these problems do not detract much from the overall quality of the piece. Heartbreakingly universal in its psychological portrayal of men coming to terms with the unbearable circumstances of war, and uniquely Japanese in its culture of honor and insistent pacifism, Letters from Iwo Jima demands to be seen at least once during your lifetime.
It’s difficult to imagine that a foreign-language film characterized by defeat and darkness could capture the attention of an American audience where a tale of national triumph and patriotism could not. But no matter what the box office numbers say, Letters from Iwo Jima should have much more staying power than Eastwood’s complementary Flags of Our Fathers. The winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film and a nominee for best-director honors, Letters may well be the first great war film of the 21st century.