The concept of a single battle being shown from the perspectives of the two warring sides in two different films, itself made me sit up and take notice of this superb film directed by Clint Eastwood. "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a companion piece to "Flags of our Fathers", also made by Eastwood. While "Flags of our Fathers" shows the battle of Iwo Jima from the American perspective, "Letters from Iwo Jima" depicts it from the Japanese perspective.
A brilliant twin-film concept like this raises the bar and hence it is incumbent upon the film-maker to do justice to material at hand and live up to the expectations. With "Letters from Iwo Jima" Eastwood manages to do exactly that and paints a melancholic, sad picture of the tragic battle in which the Japanese army perished in the process of defending the island of Iwo Jima in 1945.
The film focuses on the central character of Pvt. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and his attempts to survive a battle which seems to march towards an inevitable defeat.
Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives at Iwo Jima to take command of the Imperial Japanese Army troops (of which Saigo is a part) sent there to defend the island. Kuribayashi and Lieutenant Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an olympic gold medalist plan their strategy of the mountain defense and believe that the beaches will be quickly captured by the Americans and hence they stand little chance defending the beaches. Most senior officers do not agree with this strategy which leads to conflicts between the men. Kuribayashi has a difficult time managing with the opposing views but sticks to his guns anyway. This also in a way leads to the eventual downfall of the army, as decisions clash, and men refuse to follow orders that they don't agree with.
Meanwhile, the soldiers face several hardships, as they have inadequate nutrition, have to thrive on poor food and survive in unsanitary conditions. Some even die of dysentery!
Eastwood spends the first half hour introducing all the characters and telling some of the young soldiers' back stories. Like most of Eastwood's films there is a lot of melodrama involving these central characters. A typical flashback scene is shown in which young Saigo is sent off to war when his wife is expecting a child. Parallely he shows us moments of clashes between Kuribayashi and some senior officials over the strategies. He also shows us some brief peaceful moments of pleasure, which the men may never experience again; like the scene in which Kuribayashi and Nishi share a couple of drinks over a modest dinner.
Soon after, though, the attack begins. Here on, the film doesn't let up and takes the viewer right in the middle of the battlefield. The combat sequences are masterfully created and the beautiful cinematography by Tom Stern makes the horrific battle come to life. The film depicts the horrors of war and how the soldiers have to forcibly accept the inevitable, and at times make extremely difficult choices.
Barring a few cinematic cliches, the screenplay penned by Iris Yamashita of a story co-written with Paul Haggis is depressing, yet powerful, to say the least.
The original music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens is excellent and hauntingly sad for the most part of the film.
The performance by Ken Watanabe is the most notable. He does an excellent job of portraying the tragic figure of Lieutenant Generat Kuribayashi who fought against all odds and despite all the resistance encouraged his army to keep moving on till their last breaths.
This film is almost entirely in Japanese spoken language and hence it is difficult to tell that this is actually a Hollywood production and not a Japanese movie.
Watch this film and prepare to be moved.