Letters From Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood

There’s much to be admired about Clint Eastwood (a master director at the top of his game and no less ambitious at age 76) and about Letters From Iwo Jima, an unprecedented project that’s the flipside to his American-focused Flags Of Our Fathers. He shows remarkable sensitivity and insight by telling the story of the battle for the Japanese island of Iwo Jima — a strategic turning point in the Second World War — again, this time from the Japanese perspective. It’s a beautifully shot film, directed with a sure hand and a deft touch, but — having not seen Flags — Letters feels a bit like a companion piece, not a film that can stand totally on its own merits.

The story, written by Iris Yamashita with an assist from Paul Haggis (who penned Crash, as well as Flags and Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby), primarily concerns General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, who gives an excellent performance), a man who recognises the changing tides in Japanese culture that the war — win or lose — will bring. He’s familiar with American culture and modernisation, having lived in the U.S. for a time in the early ’30s — a fact hammered home, in one of the film’s missteps, through period-looking flashbacks — but his modern attitudes have some of his soldiers questioning his loyalties to the Empire.

Kuribayashi acts as a wartime father figure to Saigo, a young baker whose island fate becomes entwined with the general’s. Japanese TV star Kazunari Ninomiya brings a soulful beauty to the role, torn as he is between the honour of dying for his country and the pregnant wife he left behind.

Eastwood does some admirable work in taking a sensitive and honest look at the "enemy” in Letters, but there are several moments — the raising of the American flag over Mt. Suribachi, the flashbacks to Kuribayashi’s American experiences, certain battle scene details — that feel like they need the flipside of Flags to flesh them out. Without that larger narrative framework, as well as the added knowledge that thousands upon thousands of Japanese soldiers gave their lives with little or no military support from the Japanese mainland, Letters From Iwo Jima lacks a compelling narrative through-line.

From the opening scene, in which fresh-faced Saigo digs trenches on the beach and muses that he’s digging his own grave, there’s a pall of doom that hangs over the film — indeed, because nearly all these soldiers are doomed to die before the credits roll. Dying with honour and dying for a cause are contemplated and debated in the rock tunnels the soldiers dig out, but death is the film’s only colour palette, extending to its black, volcanic sand beaches.

Beautiful, accomplished and at times quite compelling and emotionally powerful, Letters From Iwo Jima still feels like most of a story, not the whole picture.