And the greatest paradox of them all is to speak of civilized warfare. – Author Unknown
Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers was missing a lot, not the least of which were cohesion and acting. That film’s companion, the Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima, isn’t missing a stitch. More Million Dollar Baby than Heartbreak Ridge, Eastwood brings a genuine sadness to the war picture and plenty of respect for those on the other side.
Taken from a book of letters home from the war written by Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (portrayed by the consistently great Ken Watanabe), Letters from Iwo Jima is something of a new chapter in the American war movie, much as Saving Private Ryan was when it re-wrote most of the whole book. The Japanese aren't depicted as villains or enemies. They're seen as human, men fighting for cause and country, men wanting to end the nonsensical violence around them every day and go home to their families.
Some would charge Eastwood with revisionist history, but although he's nearly a century old, probably wouldn't do so to his face. Make no mistake: The Japanese were a nasty bunch in World War II. In addition to their battles in the Pacific against the good ol' USA, Japan slaughtered in the neighborhood of 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians, Burmese, and ethnic Chinese, to say nothing of their treatment of POWs, which was arguably worse than the treatment by the Nazis.
But Eastwood is rightly not concerned with the policy of the Japanese government or its military commanders as he is the men on the front lines. As a result, we don't see much bloodshed on Iwo Jima until the last half hour, focusing instead on how these young men wound up here, defending a desolate rock against maybe 80,000 more American troops.
It would have been an easier sell for Eastwood to make Letters from Iwo Jima an English-language film. But by presenting this Japanese story in Japanese (with a clearly Western aesthetic), Eastwood is encouraging his audience to make an even greater effort to understand the combatants.
It's remarkable that Eastwood, who will turn 77 this year, is not just making movies, but that he's still finding new ways to tell compelling stories. The question was posed when Million Dollar Baby was released if he was still getting better as a director. Now, there's no need to question it. The proof is right there on screen.
Letters from Iwo Jima
Starring Ken Watanabe, Takumi Bando, and Hiroshi Watanabe
Directed by Clint Eastwood