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Learn more about this film on IMDb!Letters from Iwo Jima  (2006)
3 Stars
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Shido Nakamura, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Yuki Matsuzaki, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Bando, Nobumasa Sakagami, Takashi Yamaguchi, Nae Yuuki, Evan Ellingson, Lucas Elliot
2006 – 141 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for graphic war violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 13, 2006.
Filmed back-to-back and intended as a companion piece with the American-centric "Flags of Our Fathers," "Letters from Iwo Jima" switches perspective to follow the Japanese troops as they prepare for and fight in the battle at Iwo Jima. This major filmmaking undertaking is nothing short of amazing for director Clint Eastwood (2004's "Million Dollar Baby"), although the ingenious idea behind it—capturing both sides of the same war—perhaps sounds better in concept than it is in its finished form. As earnest as it was, "Flags of Our Fathers" proved to be a disappointing motion picture that lost focus as it poorly established characters and too often exited the battle scenes to depict life after the war.

In every way possible, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is the superior effort and precisely the kind of film "Flags of Our Fathers" should have been. Rarely straying away from the you-are-there action on the beaches, hills and underground caves of Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita are free to really explore exactly what it must have been like for the Japanese soldiers as they stood their ground against a battle that they knew they were not adequately equipped to win. In many ways, it is their story of defeat rather than the Americans' tale of victory that is more enthralling and dramatically dynamic, taking the time to show an angle of World War II rarely seen on film.

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) lands on the Imperial island of Iwo Jima and takes command of the troops while they are already in the midst of digging trenches in preparation for the impending U.S. invasion. Staring death in the face, they know full well the sacrifice they are about to make for their country. It is only after the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers arrive by ship and storm the beach that they realize they do not have the amount of weapons or men to stand a chance against their adversaries. When the rest of their unit takes their own lives in a mass suicide pact, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a humble baker who has been taken away from his wife and an infant son he has never met, successfully convinces Shimizu (Ryo Kase) that the emperor would rather them fight to the end than give up. Clinging to a likely futile hope of coming out of the battle alive, Saigo and Shimizu press forward even as they can't help but question the worth of what they are fighting for.

Shot in stark, desaturated colors that save a more vibrant palette for the sparse flashbacks and a few climactic oceanic shots, "Letters from Iwo Jima" shares with "Flags of Our Fathers" the same aesthetic sheen of cinematographer Tom Stern. What has improved considerably is the competency with which the battle scenes are conceived. Those in "Flags of Our Fathers" were brief, jarring, had no sense of timing, and were next to incomprehensible when it came to the what's and who's of the onscreen carnage. By comparison, the ones in "Letters from Iwo Jima" are strikingly cohesive and involving without compromising the graphic violence and overall brutality of war. It also helps to be immersed within the setting without the tendency to screech to a halt and flash forward to the post-war interludes that killed the pacing of "Flags of Our Fathers."

Director Clint Eastwood shows tolerance and courage in his bold choice to sympathetically portray those who were ostensibly America's enemies during WWII. Wisely and to the benefit of the storytelling, he has shed the picture of much of its politics and narrowed his gaze upon the crucial things that unite all of us, no matter the race, ethnicity or nationality, as human beings. Unafraid to be critical and question the meaning of war in the eye of so much barbarism and bloodshed, Eastwood gives the audience Japanese characters who are worth feeling compassion for and are full of the same hopes, dreams and fears as those on the other side of the battle in "Flags of Our Fathers."

The ensemble cast members are faultless, but it is leads Ken Watanabe (2003's "The Last Samurai") and Kazunari Ninomiya who bring the most depth to their diverse roles as General Kuribayashi and Saigo. Both are waging their own internal wars even as the life-threatening external one happens around them, and both character arcs are intimate and effective. For Kuribayashi, who had been living in the U.S. prior to the war, he steadfastly remains faithful to his birth country and does his best to hold his troops together despite experiencing an undeniable connection with his opposition. Watanabe does low-key but layered work as this leader whose conflicts run much deeper than the current one playing out on Iwo Jima.

As Saigo, Kazunari Ninomiya is the heart of the movie, exquisitely portraying a man pulled away from the life he has built with his wife and forced into fatal circumstances beyond his control. After hearing a letter being read that was written from an American mother to her young son who has just been killed, Saigo can't help but recognize the similarities that unite himself—and all of his comrades, for that matter—with the soldiers they are combating against.

"Letters from Iwo Jima" features unnecessary wraparound scenes set in 2005 that do not add anything to the 130 minutes in between them. These present-day sequences are thankfully very brief, however, and are only minimally detrimental to the meat of the storyline. Otherwise, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a stirring, authentically produced war drama, as electrifying in its quiet, introspective moments as it is when the characters are placed directly in the lines of fire, heading honorably toward their own tragic, unavoidable fates.
© 2006 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman