Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima" is an anti-war film unlike any other. With almost every war film ever made the viewer gets a very clear, simple us versus them arrangement. You know who to root for. When the bad guy gets blown away it's no big deal. They're the bad guys. They're bad. They're evil. That's how the world is. We're good, they're bad, we shoot them, they die, we win, credits role, and we walk out the door feeling great about how good we are.
Well, who are the bad guys in "Letters from Iwo Jima"? Where's the antagonist?
"Letters from Iwo Jima" is Eastwood's second Iwo Jima film of the year. The first was "Flags of Our Fathers." It was released in October and considered the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the American soldiers. Its focus was the iconic planting-of-the-flag photograph and the surviving soldiers in it. "Letters from Iwo Jima" flips the coin and presents the Japanese perspective.
The film begins with the preparation to the invasion. The soldiers are digging ditches on the beaches when Army General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (the Oscar-nominated Ken Watanabe of "The Last Samurai" and "Batman Begins") arrives. He immediately revamps the entire strategy, including how the officers treat their troops. Like "Flags of Our Fathers," focus and sympathy is aimed toward the poor soldiers at the bottom of the food chain. While Kuribayashi receives plenty of screen-time, the real protagonist is Saigo, a reluctant soldier played by Kazunari Ninomiya. (Interestingly, in addition to acting, Ninomiya is part of a Japanese pop group.) The young Saigo is punished at the beginning of the film for "un-Patriotic talk." An officer beats him with a cane when Kuribayashi walks by and questions him if he has enough men that he can waste. Ending the beating Kuribayashi instead simply has Saigo's lunch ration denied for that day. It's the first time Kuribayashi saves Saigo and it wouldn't be the last.
Kuribayashi knew that he and his men were doomed. He made it very clear in his letters to his wife that he would not be returning.
Neither the general nor the soldier wanted this fight. Saigo owned a bakery and had a pregnant wife when a government official showed up with his conscription papers. Kuribayashi had lived for several years in the United States and was a vocal critic opposed to war. These are not evil, malevolent people. And that's what makes the film uniquely anti-war. It does not push some simplistic "war is bad" message so much as it critiques one of the principle, necessary myths of war: the idea that our enemies are inhuman monsters. The reality is that in many cases - not all, but many - the other side's soldier is not particularly different than our own. But the myth is important because when you start humanizing the enemy it's harder to kill them. Amidst these themes we also see the others that automatically go with it: those of honor and patriotism.
With such weighty themes Eastwood guides his picture with the steady hand we've grown accustomed to in his work. The man directs films like W. B. Yeats wrote poetry. There's a degree of traditional authority to his images. You don't find an overly flashy technique, it's subdued and careful, yet confident. Those are three particularly abstract, meaningless sentences aren't they? What I'm trying to suggest is that Eastwood is of different filmmaking school than many other directors, more of a classical style almost. It seems as though he seeks to remain somewhat invisible. You don't get a whole lot of energetic camera movements or intense stylistic moves. His pictures are more reserved and quietly confident, even when doing World War II action sequences. Read a Yeats poem or two and see if that makes any sense or if I'm just going crazy.
My only reservation with the film is its failure to really hit me on a substantial emotional level. Intellectually and artistically the film is very engaging but it didn't strike the tear ducts and it seemed like it should have.
It's still worth viewing on those first two counts, though. It's valuable to consider these ideas, especially given their relevance to our own time.