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Letters from Iwo Jima

The more different it tries to be from Flags of Our Fathers, the more Letters from Iwo Jima seems the same.


The Japanese military prepares for the impending American attack on the island of Iwo Jima by digging a cave system. They expect to attack from within the earth and stave off the U.S. army in a matter of days. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) isn't so sure; he's been to America and knows the strength of their forces. The ones getting their hands dirty are the soldiers. We follow Saigo (Kazanuri Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), two young soldiers with different perspectives on the war. Through flashbacks and letters written back home, we learn that Saigo was just starting his family but was forced by the country's law to join the war. Shimizu is a willing recruit but real combat is far different from young boys' violent patriotism. Once combat commences, the Japanese philosophy of suicide before retreat becomes a reality. Even when Kuribayashi suggests bringing remaining forces together to hold off other attacks, stalwart lieutenants insist on carrying out an honorable death. This is indeed a very different perspective on war than Flags of Our Fathers. As much as both sides had fresh faced kids experiencing war, the philosophies of the armies are incomparable. It is the same battle, complete with some of the same scenarios filmed differently.


The only character with any moral ambiguity is Kuribayashi. Watanabe portrays him as a charismatic, strong, seemingly fearless leader, who is pensive about having the responsibility for all these young lives, and really gets to the meat of the story. But eventhough Oscar-nominee Watanabe is the most known, Letters really belongs to Ninomiya and Kase. Their characters have fairly standard arcs: As Saigo, Ninomiya effectively shows the reality of a soldier doing his job but with the real world perspective to question his superiors. He doesn't want to be there and confirms all his feelings about the horrors of war. Kase is believable as the gung ho soldier Shimizu, who has a change of heart when he sees war for what it really is. There are lots of traditional Japanese army supporters, both in the ranks and in the flashbacks of pedestrians. But they mostly come across as one-dimensional screaming lunatics (''Kill yourself! Give your life to defend this rock!''). Of course, the film accurately shows the Japanese culture at the time--but it still comes across as a bit of a caricature.


Clint Eastwood frames Letters from Iwo Jima in much the same style as Flags of Our Fathers--with almost no color, not black and white but a sort of sepia gray. As such, it fits perfectly as a companion piece but leaves a bit to be desired stylistically. In other words, we've seen it already. Did the Japanese really look at Iwo Jima as blandly as the U.S. did? Also, the gore is absolutely excessive. After about the hundredth suicide by grenade, it no longer seems like the gore is making a point about the insanity of the old Japanese traditions. It was pretty much clear from the first self-induced explosion. The character moments, in foxholes or flashbacks, come across as typically sappy war movie pathos, as well. Everyone leaves family behind. Nobody wants to be under fire. War is hell, always has been, and movies will continue to confirm it for anyone who might doubt. In this case, though, Letters only shows that for all the different perspective the other side of a war could have, it's the same old movie clichés.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 stars.