Back in 2006 director Clint Eastwood tried an interesting experiment. Tell the story of the battle of Iwo Jima, but, tell it from both sides. "Flags Of Our Fathers", tells the story of the war from the American perspective. "Letters From Iwo Jima" gives us the Japanese perspective. Somehow the Japanese perspective is more interesting then the American perspective. And not only that, "Letters From Iwo Jima" is a better film.
"Flags Of Our Fathers" didn't feel very patriotic. It didn't develop the characters in an interesting way. It didn't seem to represent the American culture of the time period quite well. But "Letters From Iwo Jima" demonstrates the Japanese mentality much more effectively. It gives the viewer the opportunity to see how these soldiers think. Funny that an American director such as Eastwood would be able to do this and not be able to do it with the American story.
"Letters From Iwo Jima" is really a film about honor and the Japanese culture. It is a war film second. Another interesting aspect of the film is, I cannot remember another recent film which gives us the perspective of war from the losing side. History, we are told, is told from the victors. But Eastwood does something very impressive with this film. He manages to make the viewer root against their own interest. We don't really see these characters are Japanese or American, but simply as people. By becoming so involved in the story of these soldiers, we find ourselves identifying with them and rooting for them against the Americans.
There is a scene near the end of the film where one of the Japanese soldiers wants to surrender. He goes across enemy lines and waves his white flag. The American soldiers capture him. Here the soldier sees another Japanese soldier who has surrendered as well. The two men talk and seem to share the belief that not only have they done the right thing, but, they will be treated better as American prisoners than Japanese soldiers. But the American soldiers do not want to sit around watching prisoners, fearful an attack may be on the way. So, they shoot the prisoners. This puts the viewer, assuming they are American, in the odd position of feeling bad for the prisoners, not the American soldier. With this image in our head we remember an early scene when the Japanese capture an American soldier who has been wounded. The commanding officer tells his men to treat him, despite their lack of medical supplies. At first the men resist, insisting the Americans would never do this for a Japanese soldiers. The commander tells them otherwise. How wrong he was!
"Letters From Iwo Jima" is mostly told from the perspective of Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) a private who doesn't share his commanders' view of the world. He may love his country but he doesn't want to die for it. He has a wife and child, whom he hasn't seen yet. He doesn't seem to understand the Japanese mentality of going into a battle knowing full well they are all going to die. The Americans outnumber them, and reinforcements will not be sent. When members of his brigade decided to kill themselves rather than surrender to the Americans, Saigo watches each of them kill themselves, but he runs away.
Other interesting characters in the film are General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). These two men have spent time in America. They also don't seem to share all of their country's beliefs. They are not as harsh as some of the other commanding officers. Most of the Japanese soldiers are told Americans are savages. But, because these two men have spent time in America, and have actually met Americans, they know this is not entirely true. Even though they feel a loyalty to their country, they also feel an inner-conflict.
Eastwood directs many of the war scenes with a fierce grittiness we haven't experienced since "Saving Private Ryan". Coincidentally enough, Steven Spielberg is one of the film's producers. But the war scenes in this film are just as harrowing, if not in some instances, more so.
The film also has an usually texture to it. It has a grainy look to it, which almost makes it look like a black&white film, while still having tints of color. Some scenes showing the American boats headed towards the island of Iwo Jima, are actually visually beautiful. The cinematographer, Tom Stern, deserves much credit. He also shoot "Million Dollar Baby" and "Mystic River".
"Letters From Iwo Jima" was a widely respected film in 2006. It won the Golden Globe for "best foreign language film" and was nominated for 4 Oscars, including "best picture" and "best director". It did win one Oscar for "best sound editing". It seems age has not slowed down Eastwood. With every new film he releases he seems to get better and better. For now, "Letters From Iwo Jima" is one of his best films.