Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Hiroshi Watanabe
Synopsis: A film made as a companion piece to Flags of our Fathers, this tells the story of the battle for Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective. It depicts a battle they were destined to lose, denied the arms and men required to mount a reasonable defense. As with Flags, it also depicts these men not as monsters or as heroes, but as men with loved ones that fight for their country, but that also hope to see home again one day.
It takes a brave American director to take an important chapter of world history in which his country was involved, and to avoid painting a picture that is purely black and white. In making two films, one from the perspective of each of the opposing sides in this conflict, he creates an image of real men with real problems, real families, and real emotions. As a pair of films they by no means glorify war, yet though do honour the men that were involved in this conflict. Not as heroes, but as the people that they were.
Letters for me was by far the stronger film of the pair. Both films rely to a certain degree on the use of flashback and intercut timelines, yet whereas Flags did this to an almost confusing degree, it was much more restrained in Letters, and as such the flashbacks were used to greater effect. There were also fewer main characters to follow in Letters, and as a result there was less difficulty in reconciling names with faces. Perhaps subtitles assisted in this greater ease of recognition as well, but whatever the reason, it was a major assistance in the enjoyment of the film.
Of course in a film like this, performances are key, especially when they are required to display high levels of tension, anxiety, or depression. Watanabe is a true class act. Previously, he was the best thing about Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, and he has subsequently had a number of high impact smaller roles in major films such as Batman Begins and Inception. He plays the General placed in charge of the defence of Iwo Jima, and he plays a very reasonable man willing to abandon traditional ways (especially ritual suicide in failure) if it means he can better defend the island, and as such prevent the West from getting a foothold into Japan. The performance is very measured, yet very powerful. He is a man on whom one can rely to lead you through battle. Ninomiya is the other incredible performer in this piece, as our low-level soldier whom we follow through the majority of the film. He is perhaps not the best soldier, but he is perhaps the most honourable man on display. In this sense he comes off much better than many of superior rank to him. Some would label him a coward, but with a wife, and a baby daughter whom he has never met, it is clear to understand he is a man who has a lot to lose in death. When these two characters share the screen together, the film has some of its most powerful scenes.
Like any good film, this film has moment that stick with you well after the end credits. A simple moment of caring for a wounded enemy solider, and finding a letter on his person that was sent to him by his mother, is a very emotional moment. It is very simple yet very powerful. It is an example of a moment in film that does not require that much effort to film, yet it does very easily and strongly get to the crux of the film. I highly recommend this film, it is one of the best war films I can recall seeing.
4.5 stars out of 5