Letters from Iwo Jima is a great reminder that a huge event such as a war battle is not only limited to one POV. This movie, distinct among American-made combat pictures, tells its story from the “enemy” side. First, director Clint Eastwood showed us Flags of Our Fathers, which is about American soldiers who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. From that perspective, the Japanese fighters are a brutal and conniving force. They are well hidden in tunnels and are able to decimate the incoming American soldiers by hundreds. In Letters from Iwo Jima however, the Japanese viewpoint could not be more different. Even before the battle began, the dreaded feeling of defeat hung in the air.

The movie introduces us to several characters: Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the practical and dashing commander; Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an equestrian who won Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles; Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a suspected spy to report on disloyal soldiers; and Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), the young baker who reluctantly leaves behind a pregnant wife to fight. It’s harrowing to follow these men, as one by one, confront the inevitability of death. We wonder if any of them will survive the film.

The most intriguing aspect of the film is the Eastern philosophy of relating suicide with honor. There’s a certain logic in killing oneself, rather be killed by the enemy. But still, I can’t wrap my brain around the concept since it lacks practicality. Aren’t you doing your enemy a favor by committing suicide? However, this stirs great drama into the story. In one grisly scene, a bunch of men takes their own lives by setting off grenades close to their hearts.

The Japanese cast is uniformly excellent. Ken Watanabe is brilliantly subtle as Kuribayashi. His general is typically steady and calm, but as mainland Japan fails to send aid, panic-stricken soldiers undermine his authority, and American soldiers slowly gaining ground, there is tragic nobility in his effort to be strong. Kazumari Ninomiya also delivers a strong performance as the guileless Saigo, whose difficult goal is to survive through pluck and luck. He and rest of the cast are wonderfully guided by Clint Eastwood, who smartly eschews any showboating. Even when chaos surrounds the movie, Letters from Iwo Jima never feels flashy. The muted cinematography is near monotone; the colors are faded. However, the haunting drama is very clear and strong. There are painful moments that can make you cry. They are so painful, you feel as if your heart will explode too.

Grade: A

Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Shido Nakamura, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Yuki Matsuzaki, Hiroshi Watanabe, and Takumi Bando
Based on a story by
Paul Haggis
Iris Yamashita
Screenplay by
Iris Yamashita
Directed by
Clint Eastwood
Rated R for graphic war violence