The grand irony of Clint Eastwood’s commendable project to portray the Battle of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspective is that Letters from Iwo Jima – the lower-budgeted, less commercially viable, and later conceived film – is significantly better than the ‘primary’ picture, Flags of our Fathers. The requisite lack of spectacle (due to a $15 million budget compared to Flags $60 million) has resulted in a more subtle and intelligent film. Everything about Letters from Iwo Jima, from structure to acting, is low-key in comparison, and the payoff is vast.
Sensibly, Letters is not merely Flags retold with a Japanese cast. Eastwood has decided against such a clinical mirror-image, so the central trio of Flags is nowhere to be found, the cumbersome time-jumping narrative is largely avoided, and the most statuesque character – Ken Watanabe’s General Kurybiashi – has no prominent counterpart in Flags. Although this helps to establish Letters as a film in its own right, the changes are actually repairs of Flags’s flaws. That film incorporated a recurring framing device, plus the soldiers at home, plus their memories of the battle, all self-destructively intermingled. Letters’s narrative is comparatively linear, merely top-and-tailed by Japanese historians excavating on the island and occasionally flashes back to the character’s pre-war lives in some very effective self-contained vignettes. The battle itself is the dominant story, enabling us to deepen our attachment to these characters so that the despairing climax is poignant and engrossing.
The two central characters are Watanabe’s practical general, who prohibits the suicide his officers often rapidly seek and thus incurs their disdain, and Kazunari Ninomiya’s young baker Saigo, drafted into service and angry about the price of protecting sacred soil. Although one could question the bias involved in having the two principals scorning embedded Japanese attitudes, their decisions at the climax and our response to their actions reveal something more complex. Watanabe is characteristically excellent, but Ninomiya is quite a find as Saigo. In him we have the endearing and accessible protagonist that Flags lacked, trapped by Ryan Phillippe’s lack of emoting and Adam Beach’s over-emoting. There are a number of additional interesting characters, including Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a disgraced military policeman, and compassionate Olympic athlete turned officer Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). Nishi features in a key scene that sums up the entire project’s goals, when he captures an American soldier and orders him to be treated so that his men can finally meet the enemy. Upon the young man’s death, he reads them a letter from his mother, and the men contemplate that their foes hold dear the same values that they do.
Subplots like this can make the narrative a little episodic and prone to fits and starts, but there are so many powerful scenes that build to a resonant climax that it’s easily forgiven. Not to pick on Flags, but it so rarely offered such moments, except when Phillippe’s character finds a captured friend, now dead. We never see the possibly mutilated deceased, only Phillippe’s shadowed face. In Letters too, Eastwood doesn’t shy away from violence, implied or otherwise, particularly in one of the most harrowing scenes of the year, when a group of soldiers commit suicide with hand grenades one after another, after another, after another as the camera pans across them. While far less is shown than it could have been, the idea and glimpses converge for the raw truth about the Japanese conception of a noble death.
Despite such blunt force, there are moments of quiet beauty too. The eponymous letters are often spoken over happy moments back home, and the gentle joy actually reminded me of the films of Hayao Miyazaki (although such a kneejerk comparison may mean I need to see more Japanese cinema). Regardless, Eastwood has admirably captured a Japanese ethos in this film, particularly with the score, which immerses us in some gorgeous moments. He also doesn’t flinch from casting the American soldiers in a poor light, just as our glimpses of the Japanese in Flags are similarly horrific. In a desperate battle, the brutal is what will likely be seen in your enemy. Eastwood seeks to make this sad fact clear and to demonstrate that it is this unavoidable obstruction that causes warring cultures to descend further into oblivious conflict. For a right-winger, Eastwood has made a remarkably compassionate film here. It’s more than likely that of the two, Letters will be the one remembered, because Eastwood’s ultimate goal with the Iwo Jima endeavour can be found here alone if need be.