'Iwo Jima' profound dirge to the defeated 

Rarely has an American filmmaker recounted the horrors of war from the perspective of a onetime enemy, but here is Clint Eastwood’s "Letters From Iwo Jima," the stirring companion-piece to "Flags of Our Fathers," re-imagining one of World War II’s most harrowing campaigns from the standpoint of the Japanese.

In doing so, it reaches a simple, inescapable conclusion – that war, while sometimes inevitable, is truly barbaric, and that our adversaries often have more in common with us than we might like to believe.

General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) certainly does. As the military tactician charged with protecting the ancient homeland and a former envoy to the U.S., he faces a unique dilemma – he admires the Americans, knowing that his commanders have underestimated the enemy’s mastery of war technology. He also knows that his troops will be outnumbered and most likely slaughtered.

Though he pays lip service to the rigid warrior code, he is unwilling to sacrifice his men simply to save face. He struggles to find honor in life needlessly wasted, and his humanism draws mixed reactions from the troops.

Some, like Lt. Ito (Shidou Nakamura), regard it as weakness, dismissing Kuribayashi as an American sympathizer. They would rather kill themselves than suffer the humiliation of surrender, and in one chilling sequence, an entire squad is ordered to commit ritual suicide.

Others, like former Olympic champion Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), appreciate Kuribayashi’s pragmatism. They are prepared to give their lives for Japan, but they understand that a living soldier will serve the country better than a corpse.

Then there’s Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker whose only ambition is to survive the war so he can return to his wife and unborn child. Saigo doesn’t care much for the war effort – as far as he’s concerned, the Americans are welcome to the island, with its black-sand beaches and rocky, infertile terrain.

(Courtesy photo) Director Clint Eastwood (center) on the set of "Letters to Iwo Jima."

He never wanted to fight, but, like many soldiers, was forcibly enlisted. Improbably, he forges a bond with Kuribayashi, and only then does he ascribe purpose to the madness around him. He fights to honor the sacrifices of his friends.

While "Flags of Our Fathers" examined the Truman administration’s use of a dramatic photo to sell war bonds, "Letters From Iwo Jima" emphasizes the humanity of the Japanese troops, whose suffering was at least comparable to that of our own. They, too, had worriedmothers and frantic wives. Many of them lived with the certain knowledge that they would never see them again.

Eastwood pays fitting tribute to their courage and decency without a hint of bias or mawkish melodrama. The film’s dialogue, conceived in English then translated into Japanese, is simple but powerful, and Eastwood treats his characters with the same respect he displayed for American soldiers in "Flags."

The lesson here – that war is hell, and that our humanity is something we share with those who oppose us – is hardly original, but here it is taught profoundly.


Letters From Iwo Jima  * * * *

Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Shido Nakamura, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase

Written by: Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Time: 2 hours, 21 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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