Eastwood’s film is at once less audacious than Flags of Our Fathers, and more linear. In my review of Flags, the major problem I had with the film was its penchant for flashbacks, jumping back and forth through time, leaving the audience confused as to which character we focusing on and why.Letters has no such problem, being a straight linear story from Kuribayashi’s arrival on Iwo Jima to his self-inflicted death at the end of the battle.
This leaves us with a long, well made, traditional World War II movie in Japanese. I doubt the high critical praise for the film, and its highly touted Oscar chances, would be considered if the film was in English. As with Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day and other noted films, the use of foreign language adds an element of realism to the movie. However, with Letters of Iwo Jima, the Japanese language may be hard for American audiences to appreciate. Almost three hours of subtitles left several of my party with headaches and exhaustion. While I don’t speak Japanese, I am familiar with many Japanese military terms, and the Japanese speakers in the audience and I deemed the translation accurate.
Portraying the Japanese garrison from June 1944 until the end of February 1945, Letters from Iwo Jima focuses on several real and fictional characters. I’m at the point in my study of World War II where I need to learn Japanese in order to progress, but I’m not aware of any English-Language books that focus on the Japanese on Iwo Jima. The film is based on the oddly translated title "Picture Letters from Commander in Chief" by Kuribayashi himself, edited by Tsuyoko Yoshido.
Spoilers from this point forward.
From the beginning, the communications of the doomed Japanese garrison, with each other and to their loved ones, is the focus of the film. It opens with an overview of the island circa 2005, with rusting tanks, guns, and bunker debris. A Japanese team is excavating the caves, and someone finds something…important. The whole team rushes over to look.
Fade in on June 1944, and Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) lands on Iwo Jima. Greeted by his subordinates, who have been waiting by the airfield for hours, he immediately makes a reconnoiter of the entire island. While on tour he encounters a Captain beating two enlisted men for complaining about the island’s conditions. One of the men is a composite fictional character named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) who is the film’s major supporting character. A baker drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army, he wants nothing more to go home to his wife and child. He endears himself to his men by ordering the beatings to stop, and orders the construction of the beach defenses stopped.
Coming to the conclusion that the beach is conceded to any landings, Kuribayashi orders his men to dig into the volcanic island. One man dies of dysentery, contracted form the communal living and the poor water quality. Replacements begin to arrive. Shimizu is a disgraced Kempeitai(military police) academy graduate who failed to appropriately terrorize his civilian charges, and was discharged and sent to Iwo Jima. Also arriving is the celebrity Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) commander of the 26th Tank Regiment. He also is able to bring his horse, as he is a famous high jumper, who won medals in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. They dig and train for the coming battle. Kuribayashi evacuates the civilians and over the objections of his officers (except Nishi) he plans for a protracted battle below ground.
Suspecting that Shimizu is sent there to spy on them, Saigo and his best friend shun him. They fig tunnels and soon are under constant air attack. B-24s and Corsairs attack the island at will, driving the soldiers underground and destroying the installations above ground. Saigo narrowly avoids death in an air attack, finds a man dead in a grotesque position. Nishi finds his horse dying in the devastated corral.