Masterful ‘Letters’ 

Retelling WWII from the other side, brilliantly.

HUMAN: Japanese general (Ken Watanbe).
  • HUMAN: Japanese general (Ken Watanbe).

Though Western filmmakers have produced a number of stunningly well-done films on the subject of World War II in recent years — Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” come immediately to mind — the enemies on the other side of that conflict have remained as distant and dimly lit as they were in any John Wayne blood-and-guts number from the first heyday of dubya-dubya-two movies.

That all changes with Clint Eastwood’s moving and monumental “Letters from Iwo Jima.” Simply a masterpiece of emotion and depth, “Letters From Iwo Jima” does for the Japanese soldier what “Saving Private Ryan” did for Americans at D-Day: shrinks a massive, faceless force down to the individuals that form it — men with mothers, fathers and the fear of death that haunts us all.

For the most part, “Letters” follows two men: Japanese Army Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (the superb Ken Watanabe), and young enlisted man Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). Schooled in Western tactics of war, Kuribayashi arrives on Iwo Jima late in 1944, tasked with defending the island from a looming Allied invasion by sea. Though his new post is mostly grassless rock and black volcanic sand, Kuribayashi knows it is the key to the entire Pacific Theater of the war. If the island is taken by the Allies, an airbase there will put the Japanese homeland within the range of their bombers.

Without hope of re-supply or reinforcement, Kuribayashi and his 20,000 men are told to hold the island at all costs. With the landing of the first wave of Americans and word that the Japanese fleet has been destroyed, Gen. Kuribayashi finds he must fight both the enemy and the attitudes of his officers, many of whom would rather waste their men on pointless banzai charges into the teeth of machine gun fire than take what they believe to be the dishonorable path of retreat. In the midst of all this is young Saigo, a humble baker, who must balance — often moment by moment — his pledge to die in defense of the island with his wish to return home to his wife and the daughter he has never seen.

Like all of Eastwood’s films, there are moments of genuine beauty in “Letters.” That these moments are juxtaposed against scenes of almost incredible depravity and violence –- men blowing themselves up with hand grenades to avoid capture, men burned alive by flame throwers, men blasted to pieces by artillery shells — is kind of the point of the film as a whole; that, given our capacity for kindness, joy and love, war is one of the most useless and insane things we do as human beings.

Sprinkled throughout the film, mostly in flashbacks while characters are writing letters home, are moments that approach a kind of prayer to that ideal: Kuribayashi dining with American friends; Saigo holding his weeping, pregnant wife on the day he is drafted into the army; a former military policeman relating how he was shipped to certain death on Iwo Jima because he refused his superior’s order to shoot a child’s dog; a tank commander translating a letter from a worried mother, found in a dead American’s pocket. These are the moments that truly make “Letters” a modern classic.

In even the best of our films about war, we are much more comfortable with an enemy seen only in shadow: a foreign Other, face lit by muzzle fire. With “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Eastwood finally leads John Wayne’s relentless, ruthless foe out into the sun. There, we find that he is much like any soldier: a mother’s child, no better or worse, just trying to find his way home.



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