Letters from Iwo Jima: The Better of the Eastwood Double Feature

December 26, 2006

In this second half of Clint Eastwood's epic telling of the Battle of Iwo Jima, Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the Japanese soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their homeland's sacred soil. This film is the widely-anticipated counterpart to Flags of Our Fathers, which was released earlier this year, and it presents a much more coherent and powerfully emotional interpretation of not only the battle at Iwo Jima but also of war itself.

Letters from Iwo Jima is about the soldiers who must fortify and defend their posts on the remote island which was - and today still is - Japanese-controlled. The focus is primarily on one young soldier named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who struggles to survive while watching many of his friends and his fellow soldiers die in battle. In a very vast story involving the many friends of Saigo, Letters from Iwo Jima also focuses on the ongoing conflicts among the commanders, soldiers, and the compassionate General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), such as the conflict between those who fight for honor and those who fight to stay alive.

Ken Watanabe in a commanding performance as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Letters from Iwo Jima.

With the same excellent production values found in Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood again captures vividly and retells exquisitely the Battle of Iwo Jima. The story and structure in Letters is much better in comparison to the rather brash directing and editing in Flags, and Letters delivers a much more fervent telling of the Japanese side than Flags did of the American side. Eastwood has had pacing problems in the past with his other films, and they show here too: both Iwo Jima films run nearly three hours each and they still struggle to reach a conclusion worthy of every epic moment. For a war movie, Letters skips over some major battles; for a compliment to Flags, it offers only a nod to the most poignant moments in the first film during seconds-long shots in Letters. These two films distinguish themselves not on the battlefield but with their connections to the soldiers' lives back home.

The letters from which this film takes its name are written by Saigo and General Kuribayashi to their wives and families. To hear about the war through the brush strokes of a Japanese soldier is much more engaging than the story of Flags, which shows how the drunken American soldiers lose their fame and fortune after returning from the Pacific. While Flags explores the characters often at home in America, Letters starts and ends with the soldiers already on the island and spends little time back on the major Japanese islands except for a few flashbacks. There are a few tear-wrenching scenes that show how much humanity and kindness can be found in a few soldiers on both sides of a brutal, deadly war. All of the most profound moments revolve around the letters, which connects to the ultimate message Eastwood was going for in the film.

It's undeniable that the actors, most of whom are unknown to American audiences, put on much more emotionally charged performances than did the American actors in Flags. Perhaps the Japanese actors just had an entirely different level of respect and passion that they put into the film compared to the Americans, or maybe American audiences will be more captivated by a viewpoint not often aired in their own country. Either way, Watanabe and Ninomiya as the leads carried the story fully to its conclusion and the film would not have been comparable without these two.

Soldiers Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase) defending themselves in Letters from Iwo Jima.

The stories in both Flags and Letters start with just one soldier and show you his family, his life back home, and how devastating war can be even on just one man. Normally only one side of the story is told and it's often our own side, but now with both films you truly experience both sides and clearly see how relentless war really is. Although Letters could easily stand alone as a great film, I've gained a much greater appreciation for Flags of Our Fathers after seeing this second part. Eastwood's full telling of Iwo Jima begs to be seen again, as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a shame that the two parts were released separately, but they will make one heck of a DVD box set for any Clint Eastwood fan or World War II buff.

Last Word:
Letters from Iwo Jima is a powerful and structured story of compassion and patriotism and is the better of the two Iwo Jima films from Eastwood. Together, Letters and the previous Flags of Our Fathers present a profound vision of war and of its impact stemming from only the Battle of Iwo Jima. Even if you haven't seen Flags, Letters's lengthy and beautiful plot makes it stand out alone and shine like a bayonet in the red morning sun.

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