It’d be absurdly obvious to point out Letters from Iwo Jima is an anomaly in Clint Eastwood’s body of work. Outside, well, some Japanese directors in the 1950s and 1960s, it’d probably be an anomaly in anyone’s oeuvre. It reminds me of a dream movie–some movie I watch in a dream and wake up and it’s not real. Even a day later, thinking about the film, I keep expecting it not to be real. Certainly not to get to see it again.
Though it’s a definite companion to Flags of Our Fathers, it really makes no sense to talk about the two films in relation to each other. Besides the obvious comparison (Das Boot), Iwo Jima reminds most of The Big Red One–there’s a relentless futility essayed in the three films, but Iwo Jima is by far the bleakest portrayal of war I’ve ever seen. It may have something to do with being from the Japanese perspective, but even of the Japanese war films I’ve seen… Iwo Jima is something more. The bleakness somehow never manages to depress though. Letters from Iwo Jima tells its story in a finite arena and, even though it has a slight modern-day frame, never really makes any comment on its subjects. There are a lot of beautiful moments in the film, usually involving the main character, played by Ninomiya Kazunari, and his friends and his experiences. But while the film spends its time with both he and Ken Watanabe’s general, neither are really the main focus of the film. Clint encapsulates the entire experience through these two, which lead me to The Big Red One comparison, but there are also comparison’s to Sam Fuller’s other war films, which were also incredibly bleak (The Big Red One is probably the most cheery, in fact).
In many ways, Letters from Iwo Jima is an indescribable film. Seeing it soon after Flags of Our Fathers makes a technical comparison possible, maybe even interesting, but the two films are completely different. Iwo Jima is a film… well, it’s completely unique, both in the experience of seeing it and its place in big-f Film (which is separately thrilling, that a film could still make a place for itself in the medium). It’s a startling achievement from Clint Eastwood and I pretty much figured he could do anything, but here he manages to top any conceivable expectations.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Iris Yamashita, based on a story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; production designers, Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami; produced by Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz; released by Warner Bros. and DreamWorks Pictures.
Starring Ken Watanabe (Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi), Ninomiya Kazunari (Saigo), Ihara Tsuyoshi (Baron Nishi), Kase Ryo (Shimizu), Nakamura Shidou (Lieutenant Ito) and Nae (Hanako).