It is an oft-repeated saying that there are two sides to every story. Filmically, I am hard pressed to imagine a better representation of this truism than Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers, the two films on the Battle of Iwo Jima directed last year by Clint Eastwood.
The first movie, Flags of Our Fathers, is a wonderful film; it takes a cold, hard look at what happened, what people alleged happened, and the aftermath. It is an unflinching, not always positive look at the American soldiers and their masters.
On the other side of it all, and coming to DVD this week, is Letters From Iwo Jima. A fantastic film in its own right, when paired with Flags the scope of Eastwood’s endeavor becomes clear and truly astounding. Letters, providing a look at the Japanese soldiers on the island, is an even stronger film than Flags.
The film centers on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a general recently arrived on the island of Iwo Jima, who has the task of preparing his troops for the upcoming battle against American forces. Kuribayashi has an advantage in his planning that many of his troops lack — he spent several years in the United States and thus understands more of the U.S. psyche than do his compatriots.
For different reasons, virtually every Japanese soldier on the island believes that they will not make it off the island. Sometimes they are lied to by their direct commanders, and sometimes by the commanders back in Tokyo. It is incredibly sad, and somber. Every Japanese soldier on the island deals with the battle in different ways, most of them mustering more strength than I can imagine.
The film is beautifully shot, with muted tones and a dark cast covering everything. People are hidden in shadows as they struggle to find a way to survive. Everything about it is both haunting and heart-wrenching, without ever being an over-the-top tear-jerker.
While some of the other characters in the film, like Lt. Colonel Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), are people who were actually on Iwo Jima during the fateful battle, others, like Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), are merely representative of the type of people who would have been present at the time. The use of fictional and non-fictional characters proves essential due to the fact that the vast majority of Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima during the battle died and there are few records of what took place from the Japanese perspective.