Letters from Iwo Jima (2006): Eastwood’s WWII from Japanese Perspective

All-American Clint Eastwood and foreign-language art cinema are not exactly the most congruent terms, and yet that’s exactly what distinguishes “Letters from Iwo Jima,” his impressive companion piece to “Flags of Our Fathers,” which depicts the noted brutal battle from the Japanese perspective. The new picture displays other innovations: It’s quiet, intimate, understated, and looks as if it were shot in black-white due to saturated colors.

In other words, Clint has done it again. Like the late Robert Altman, who made some of his best work in the last decade of his life when he was well into his 70s, Eastwood continues to surprise. Remarkably, at 76, he is at the peak of his career as a filmmaker. “Letters from Iwo Jima” may be too slow, ponderous, and stylized (not to speak of the subtitles) for the broad public, but it’s a remarkable achievement, which follows three other great films: “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”

It’s hard to think of another American director, of any age, who has made four good pictures in a row. The last time that happened was in the 1970s, when Coppola directed consecutively “The Godfather” (1972), “The Godfather: Part II” and “The Conversation” (both in 1974), and “Apocalypse Now” (1979), all of which were nominated for Best Picture and two (“The Godfather” movies) actually won.

Sixty-one years ago, the U.S. and Japanese armies met on Iwo Jima. Decades later, several hundred letters are unearthed from that stark islands soil. The letters give individual faces and voices to the men who fought there, as well as the extraordinary general who led them.

The Japanese soldiers are sent to Iwo Jima knowing that, in all probability, they will not come back. Among them are Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker who wants only to live to see the face of his newborn daughter; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian champion known around the world for his skill and his honor; Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a young former military policeman whose idealism has not yet been tested by war; and Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), a strict military man who would rather accept suicide than surrender.

Leading the defense is Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), whose travels in America have revealed to him the hopeless nature of the war, but have also given him strategic insight into how to take on the vast American armada streaming in from across the Pacific. With little defense other than sheer will and the volcanic rock of the island itself, Kuribayashis unprecedented tactics transform what was predicted to be a quick and bloody defeat into nearly 40 days of heroic and resourceful combat.

Some background information is in order: About 7,000 American soldiers were killed on Iwo Jima, compared to the 20,000 (or so) Japanese troops perished. The black sands of Iwo Jima are stained with their blood, but their sacrifices, their struggles, their courage and their compassion live on in the letters they sent home.

On one level, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is just as much of an effort at revisionist history as the deconstructive “Flags of Our Fathers” was regarding the myth and reality of American heroism. I don’t want to reduce the new picture to a series of platitudes and claim that it’s a powerful anti-war film, which, of course, it is. Except that what we get in this picture is also a view of how “necessary” and “inevitable” war is when looked at from the POV of the respective governments, both Japanese and American.

Midway, in a crucial scene, while still in the U.S., General Kuribayashi attends a soiree in San Francisco where he is given a gun, the kind of which “every cowboy would love to have.” One of the society matrons challenges him as to what his conduct will be if the U.S. and Japan were to engage in war. “I’ll have to follow orders,” says the General without hesitation.

This, and other scenes, emphasize the wide divide between American and Japanese cultures as far as national duty and personal versus collective orientations are concerned. And what’s poignant about the ideological differences between the two countries is that they don’t come in the form of explicit messages and moral lectures (as in most American political pictures), but are evident in a subtle, covert, and latent manner.

Through the Japanese soldiers’ daily routines, we get to know their attitude toward their country, war, death and suicide, all of which are illustrated in the narrative. Though most of the text is set on and around the Island, glimpses of the pasts of the individual protagonists through brief flashbacks. This strategy further enhances the individualization of the clique of soldiers who doesn’t come across as stereotypes or even types.

The richly detailed and textured script is by the Japanese-American screenwriter Iris Yamashita (story by Yamashita) and Paul Haggis, who won an Oscar for Crash and was nominated for writing Eastwood’s 2004 Oscar-winning drama, “Million Dollar Baby.” The director and his writers seem determined to honor the Japanese soldiers as if they were American (or any other national) fighters.

Most of the 141-minute movie speaks Japanese, except from two or three scenes, which depict the American soldiers. Two such scenes stand out. The first is an encounter between a Japanese solider and a Japanese-American one who realize they have much more in common than assumed.

The second, even more powerful episode, describes the rage, chaos, and bewilderment, when the American soldiers capture a hysterical Japanese fighter who has just witnesses the suicide of his officer.

Through the largely untold story of the Japanese soldiers, who defended against the invading American forces on the island of Iwo Jima, Eastwood explores an event that continues to resonate with both cultures. He seems haunted by the sense that making only one film–Flags of Our Fathers–would be telling only half the story. With this unprecedented dual film project, shot back-to-back to be released in sequence, Eastwood reveals the battle of Iwo Jima–and by implication–the War in the Pacific, as a clash not only of arms but also of two forceful cultures that shape the individual combatants’ conduct and even determine their fates.

While they tell separate stories from different perspectives and in different languages, Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers are Eastwoods tribute to those who lost lives on both sides of the conflict. Through these pictures, Eastwood not only succeeds in telling both sides of the story, but also reveals a new way of looking at this profoundly affecting moment in our shared history.

The acting of the entire ensemble is uniformly good. Ken Watanabe (Oscar nominated for The Last Samurai, and familiar from Memoirs of a Geisha, Batman Begins) gives a remarkable performance as Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Imperial Japanese General who led the resistance. It’s a dominant turn that should earn him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

A note about the pacing of the picture, which many will find too slow and deliberate by standards of mainstream American movies. Having served as a combat officer in the military, I can testify that the picture’s tempo, though trying at times, is utterly realistic. “Letters from Iwo Jima” reflects the long sessions of waiting and waiting between combats, just sitting, smoking, and staring at the sky, often in complete silence.


The film is produced by Eastwood, Oscar winner Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Schindlers List) and Oscar nominee Robert Lorenz (Mystic River). Eastwoods longtime collaborators head the creative behind-the-scenes team: director of photography Tom Stern; costume designer Deborah Hopper; editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; and production designers Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami. Phyllis Huffman served as casting director. The music is by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens.

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima are the last films of both Mr. Bumstead and Ms. Huffman. The former picture is dedicated to their memory.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 4

Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay (Original)
Sound Editing

Oscar Awards: 1

Sound Editing