Letters from Iwo Jima (硫黄島からの手紙, Iōjima Kara no Tegami) is a 2006 Japanese-language American war film directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood, starring Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya. The film portrays the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers and is a companion piece to Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, which depicts the same battle from the American viewpoint; the two films were shot back to back. Letters from Iwo Jima is almost entirely in Japanese, despite being co-produced by American companies DreamWorks Pictures, Malpaso Productions and Amblin Entertainment.
Returning to 2005, the archaeologists complete their digging and reveal the bag of letters that Saigo had buried. As the letters spill out from the opened bag, the voices of the Japanese soldiers who wrote them are heard.
The film is based on the non-fiction books "Gyokusai sōshikikan" no etegami ("Picture letters from the Commander in Chief") by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (portrayed on screen by Ken Watanabe) and So Sad To Fall In Battle: An Account of War by Kumiko Kakehashi about the Battle of Iwo Jima. While some characters such as Saigo are fictional, the overall battle as well as several of the commanders are based upon actual people and events.
Letters from Iwo Jima was critically acclaimed, and well noted for its portrayal of good and evil on both sides of the battle. The critics heavily praised the writing, direction, cinematography and acting. The review tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 184 out of the 202 reviews they tallied were positive for a score of 91%, and an average rating of 8.20/10, and a certification of "fresh." The site's consensus states: "A powerfully humanistic portrayal of the perils of war, this companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers is potent and thought-provoking, and it demonstrates Clint Eastwood's maturity as a director." Metacritic gave the movie a score of 89 based on 37 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, and Richard Schickel of Time were among many critics to name it the best picture of the year. In addition, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune both gave it four stars, and Todd McCarthy of Variety praised the film, assigning it a rare 'A' rating.
CNN's Tom Charity in his review described Letters from Iwo Jima as "the only American movie of the year I won't hesitate to call a masterpiece." On the "Best Films of the Year 2006" broadcast (December 31, 2006) of the television show Ebert & Roeper, Richard Roeper listed the film at #3 and guest critic A. O. Scott listed it at number one, claiming that the film was "close to perfect". James Berardinelli awarded a three out of four star review, concluding that although both 'Letters' and 'Flags' were imperfect but interesting, 'Letters from Iwo Jima' was more focused, strong and straightforward than its companion piece.
The film was far more commercially successful in Japan than in the U.S., ranking number 1 for five weeks, and receiving a warm reception from both Japanese audiences and critics. The Japanese critics noted that Clint Eastwood presented Kuribayashi as a "caring, erudite commander of Japan's Iwo Jima garrison, along with Japanese soldiers in general, in a sensitive, respectful way." Also, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun noted that the movie is clearly "distinguishable" from previous Hollywood movies, which tended to portray Japanese characters with non-Japanese actors (e.g., Chinese-Americans, and other Asian-Americans). Consequently, incorrect Japanese grammar and non-native accents were conspicuous in those former films, jarring their realism for the Japanese audience. In contrast, most Japanese roles in Letters from Iwo Jima are played by native Japanese actors. Also, the article praised the film's new approach, as it is scripted with excellent research into Japanese society at that time. According to the article, previous Hollywood movies describing Japan were based on the stereotypical images of Japanese society, which looked "weird" to native Japanese audiences. Letters from Iwo Jima is remarkable as the movie that tries to escape from the stereotypes. Owing to the lack of stereotypes, Letters from Iwo Jima was appreciated by Japanese critics and audiences.
As a framing device, Eastwood stages the digging up of a batch of letters on Iwo Jima in 2005. Throughout the film we hear passages from letters written by Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), as well as a more humble soldier, the baker Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya).
"Flags of Our Fathers" was released on October 20, and its companion, "Letters from Iwo Jima" was released on December 20. "Letters" also detailed the events of the Battle of Iwo Jima, but from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers. Ken Watanabe gave an excellent performance as real-life General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the military commander who was able to fend off invading American forces for an impressive 36 days. "Letters" was based on his letters, published as "Picture Letters from Commander in Chief."
While Eastwood rose to prominence playing no-nonsense and violent characters like Dirty Harry or The Man With No Name in the 1960s and '70s, his views of movie violence seem to have matured and softened as he developed as a director. In his post-"Unforgiven" films, one can see a definite shift away from the glorification of violent characters, often depicting murder and combat as a tragic, moral failing. This was certainly the theme of his 2003 Oscar-winning film "Mystic River."
Concentrating on the battle at Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood's film depicts the daily grind and worries of the Japanese soldiers that occupied the island, awaiting an inevitable attack by U.S. forces. We see them digging trenches and constructing tunnels for battle, and, at last, waiting to die even as they extol the nobility of their hopeless cause. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) carries an American Colt .45, which makes him suspect in the eyes of more traditionalist officers, including Admiral Ohsugi (Nobumasa Sakagami). Saigo, a young baker recruited against his will, and the general both write letters home, Saigo to his wife and Kuribayashi to his son Taro. Each, in his own way, understands what's coming, and each embodies a certain nobility that is at once familiar from U.S. war movies and unconventional. They question conventional wisdom and look after their fellows, but neither is inclined to the sort of unquestioning obedience displayed by the fierce Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura), who, unable to convince anyone else to follow him, straps mines to his body and heads off into the night, determined to find an American tank and lie beneath it to blow it up.
Elegant and sad, Letters from Iwo Jima is a war movie about loss. Director Eastwood conceived it as a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, and it is at once a more finely focused and more profound film, with violence that can never answer the questions raised by its long moments of anticipation.
Families can talk about the dedication shown by the Japanese soldiers -- to their nation and sense of cause, and, more immediately, to their commander. How does the movie connect this dedication to their previous experiences? How is their behavior different from that of the U.S. soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers? How does this movie draw connections between history and current events? How does the film argue against war, even as it admires national pride and individual soldiers' bravery? How is the Japanese perspective (filtered through director Clint Eastwood's U.S. lens) different from one that might be considered strictly American? Is there such a thing as the "true" version of history? 2b1af7f3a8