Letters from Iwo Jima
reviewed by Andrew James
Letters from Iwo Jima is a true war film while its predecessor is really a character study of veterans after the war with some war footage interspersed to engage the audience with more intensity and action. This second part of the bookend is far better because of its total immersion in the battle on the island. Also, we focus solely on one or two main characters, whilst Flags has so many names and stars with odd time transitions that it's hard to make sense of it all.
Kan Watanabe plays General Kuribayashi, the new commander in charge of holding off the allies' invasion on Iwo Jima. Under his command, several other leaders and soldiers look on in astonishment at the unorthodox methods of Kuribayashi's defensive tactics as he prepares for the assault. Some of the men feel honored to be there, while others just wish they could go home and be with their families. As the fighting ensues, the tolls of warfare not only take casualties, but also begin wear on the honor and dignity of some of the men. Here is where we see the social fabric of the Japanese warrior begin to tear and fade with horrifying consequences.
As any WWII film I ever see for the rest of my life is destined to be compared with 1997's Saving Private Ryan, so goes the way of Letters in several obvious ways. For one, the color scheme is so washed out that it appears nearly black and white for much of the film. The brutality of the warfare is nothing to be scoffed at, but I just can't help but remember Private Ryan and how nothing ever quite lives up to that impact I first felt when watching that film. Some of the same camera movements were also employed when it came to the attack sequences (e.g. the chaotic, first-person view of a camera attached to a running man as he frantically tries to reach safety).
What gives Letters a true uniqueness is its look at the Japanese warrior and their sense of honor and non belief in surrender. This practice is called into question by a few of the younger soldiers which is looked at as disgraceful by many of the officers who refuse to be taken alive. As an American audience member who generally likes to think logically and strategically, it was difficult to watch the strategies employed by these soldiers without shaking my head in disbelief as I am not accustomed to these ideas and beliefs. And besides that, the practices of many of the soldiers turned out to have very bloody consequences.
While the begining of the film takes place mostly on the beach and the interior of the island, the entire last 2/3 (once the invasion begins) is nearly entirely shot within the caves of the mountains on the island. Though this gives a unique perspective of setting, I was mostly just confused on where exactly we were and where we were going. The characters run through a labyrinth of corridors and hallways until we come upon another group of soldiers, then the characters run around some more. Occassionally we delve outside the caves, though usually at night, so even more confusion sets in.
The battles within the movie are three fold. The obvious battle against the nearly faceless enemy (The Americans), the fights amongst some of the men between their fellow soldiers while considering deserting or suicide attacks and their inner struggles of walking the line of loyalty and self preservation. These various external and internal battles sometime become fragmented and just as we are interested in one, we are shifted to another which becomes distracting.
Ken Watanabe's (The Last Samurai) is the obvious bright spot on the screen when it comes to acting. His perfect blend of serious intensity and utter humanity was the perfect match for the real life character he was portraying. But another well done performance was that of Kazunari Ninomiya, who played Saigo; a grunt level soldier just trying to survive so he can return home and see his child he's never met. His sweet innocence and fear was portrayed perfectly and we could actually see the struggles going on within him as he made conscious decisions to fight or flight.
I have to admit that while I thought the film was very technically well done and I did like most of the characters and their struggles, I really didn't see much I haven't seen before; other than the fact that the story is told through the eyes of the other side. Neither side are shown as monsters as many war movies depict the enemy. When there is the occassional American on screen with dialogue, they are portrayed as mostly regular guys with compassion. But I still had to keep reminding myself which side I should be "rooting for." Which actually shows some prowess in film making.
With some great acting and some well-done war scenes, Letters will deliver for most people on many levels. I found there to be too many characters to care about all of them and not sure who I should be paying attention to at any given time. I found the setting to be chaotic and confusing; and I thought the various battle scenes were too fragmented and copy-cat of Saving Private Ryan. Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives and this really makes for a fantastic display for any fan of war films.
IMDb.com - full cast and crew
FLIXSTER PROFILE for Letters from Iwo Jima