In one of Letters from Iwo Jima’s most effective scenes, we find ourselves looking at a lonely group of Japanese soldiers eating what will probably be their last meal. They sit in the near obscurity of a tunnel dug into Mount Suribachi, their faces lit only by the dim glow of a string of electric lights. All we hear for what seems like an eternally long time is the soft clinking of their chopsticks against their military-issued steel bowls as they finish off their meager helpings. We are almost grateful when a gruff military commander finally interrupts the scene, asking who will clean out the latrine. Director Clint Eastwood has captured a singular, eternal moment and held it in front of us — much like Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima from the same battle and the source for Eastwood’s companion piece to this film, Flags of Our Fathers.
The film depicts the last weeks and days of the Japanese island-fort of Iwo Jima. The island’s proximity to the Japanese homeland and its airbase makes it a strategic asset to both the American and Japanese militaries. Serving ungratefully on the island is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a former baker who is less than thrilled about defending the empire, especially when he has a wife and a daughter whom he has not yet met waiting for him. Saigo is accompanied by the film’s other major figure — General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, played by The Last Samurai alumnus Ken Watanabe. Kuribayashi is faced with the nearly insurmountable task of changing the ineffective suicide tactics encouraged by his peers which would surely result in an American victory — after all, the kamikaze method already lost the majority of the war.
There is not much dispute that Letters from Iwo Jima is a good film. It has already garnered a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and is nominated for three Oscars, for Best Picture, Directing and Screenplay. However, what makes Letters from Iwo Jima a great film is how it departs from its own war-movie genre. Unlike most combat movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon (and even Eastwood’s previous forays into the topic), Letters resists the temptation to become too narrative. The film’s tone is much more similar to Schindler’s List, as Eastwood opts to show us the preparations and eventual descent into horror through a series of vignettes and flashbacks. This factor, combined with Eastwood’s choice to film in a muted color scheme, makes the film seem like a news reel of the battle rather than a Hollywood presentation of events.
Of course, history dictates that the Japanese suffer a terrible defeat on the island. Kuribayashi’s own observations and warnings about the United States’s technological upper hand is quietly confirmed in one of the final shots of the movie, when a setting sun — a counter to the metaphor for Imperial Japan — is nearly eclipsed by a U.S. supply truck. This impending defeat is not lost on the Japanese characters leading up to the battle. From the conscripts to the commanders, everyone shares a sense of abandonment and doom.
However, surrender is not an option. The troops make many references to the fact that Iwo Jima has become a grave with no exit. Saigo and his peers, having totally abandoned the notion of survival, must decide to either commit suicide with honor — even though the film questions if this is really possible — or to retreat with their lives to fight another day, giving their loved ones in Japan at least an additional 24 hours before an all-out assault on the home islands.
Of course, the soldiers’ eponymous letters illustrate another theme of the film — the idea that on either side of a war, combatants are not that dissimilar. Neither the Americans nor the Japanese are anywhere near as barbaric as their respective propaganda offices label them. While this theme has been explored in previous war films and nearly risks turning Letters into a cliché, Eastwood’s direction and tone sustain and expand the notion of common humanity.
By far, the film’s most powerful and poignant scene occurs when an English-speaking Japanese commander reads a letter taken from a recently captured American to his troops, and they realize that the simple salutation from a mother in Oklahoma is no different in message from their own letters. In reality, the letters from Iwo Jima flow both ways.