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Letters From Iwo Jima

2007-04-14 12:07

Letters from Iwo Jima is the companion film to Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, and tells the story of the battle for the island of Iwo Jima during the Second World War. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is sent to lead the defence of Iwo Jima as the Americans are moving into position to invade. He has spent time in America, and knows more about the mindset than the other officers, who are suspicious of his non-traditional strategies. These include hunkering down in dug outs, and holding the island as long as possible. Every soldier on the island knows that they will probably die in the conflict, as they are outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy, but they are compelled to fight for the safety and honour of their homeland. The narrative is told through the eyes of various combatants including the General, a baker named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) who has left behind a pregnant wife, and Shimizu (Shido Nakamura) who was dishonourably discharged from the military police.


Letters from Iwo Jima is pretty refreshing for a film about the Second World War. It’s one of the first American films made from the Japanese perspective, and also one of the first to praise the courage and tenacity with which they defended Iwo Jima. The comparison to present day warfare and the treatment of their current enemies is inescapable, which makes it all the more pertinent. It’ll be a while before we see a film out of the States that validates the sacrifices made by the Taliban’s soldiers.

Shot in muted colours, Letters from Iwo Jima has a sense of both history and grim oppression. Right from the light hearted opening scenes of soldiers being reprimanded for joking during their trench digging duties, there is a sense of impending doom. These men will never be coming home, and they know it.

The characters are beautifully constructed through a series of flashbacks, narrated by their letters home to their families. The story of Saigo is particularly heartbreaking, as he has to leave his heavily pregnant wife behind. His is the face of the common man thrown into something horrible that he cannot comprehend.

At least half of the film is set during the battle, and it is relentlessly grim, with no action movie glamour or escapism. Men die in their hundreds, and by the end of the film, the island is strewn with bodies and debris.

What keeps this film from getting repetitive and overwhelming are the little touches of humanity and hope that are thrown in every now and again. A scene in which Saigo convinces Shimizu that they would be far more useful to Japan if they retreated to join the remaining forces, rather than kill themselves like the rest of the platoon, is both humorous and horrifying, given that they are standing amidst the mutilated corpses of their comrades.

Balancing the heroics with the futility of war, Letters from Iwo Jima paints a very thorough picture of a particular conflict through the eyes of individuals. Their motivations and choices are all different, but the horror is the same, and the outcome inevitable. It is a complex story, and really immerses the viewer in the ordeals these men go through, with great attention to detail. Even though it runs over 2 hours, it never drags and is mostly riveting viewing.

With excellent acting, and emotional wallop to rival the frenetic action, Letters from Iwo Jima is an intelligent war movie. It shows realistic people in realistic situations, and never lapses into sentimentality or stereotypical action film bravado. Given the grim subject matter, and the massive death toll, it isn’t light entertainment, but it is well worth seeing.

- Ivan Sadler
With excellent acting, great attention to detail and an emotional wallop, Letters from Iwo Jima is an intelligent war movie that refuses to become an action film.


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